A couple of months ago, in the post “The Myth of the Endless Ladder,” I critiqued the widespread assumption that progress in production technology, such as advances in robotics and analytical software, inevitably “frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks,” in the words of economics reporter Annie Lowrey. While such a dynamic has often been true in the past, particularly in the middle years of the last century, there’s no guarantee that it will be true in the future. Evidence is growing, in fact, that a very different dynamic is now playing out, as computers take on more analytical and judgment-making tasks. In place of the endless ladder, we may now have what MIT economics professor and labor-market expert David Autor calls a “downward ramp.” The latest wave of automation technology appears to be “freeing us up” for less-interesting and less-challenging work.
In a New York Times column, Thomas Edsall points to new research, by economists Paul Beaudry, David Green, and Ben Sand, that suggests a widespread erosion in the skill levels of jobs since the year 2000. If in the 20 years leading up to the turn of the millennium we saw a “hollowing” of mid-skill jobs, with employment polarizing between low-skill and high-skill tasks, we now seem to be seeing a rapid loss of high-skill jobs as well. From top to bottom, the researchers report, workers are being pushed down the skill ramp:
After two decades of growth in the demand for occupations high in cognitive tasks, the US economy reversed and experienced a decline in the demand for such skills. The demand for cognitive tasks was to a large extent the motor of the US labor market prior to 2000. Once this motor reversed, the employment rate in the US economy started to contract. As we have emphasized, while this demand for cognitive tasks directly effects mainly high skilled workers, we have provided evidence that it has indirectly affected lower skill workers by pushing them out of jobs that have been taken up by higher skilled worker displaced from cognitive occupations. This has resulted in high growth in employment in low skilled manual jobs with declining wages in those occupations, and has pushed many low skill individuals out of the labor market.
Beaudry, Green, and Sand encapsulate the new deskilling trend in this remarkable chart, which documents the intellectual demands of the jobs taken by college graduates*:
Comments MIT’s Andrew McAfee, co-author of The Second Machine Age:
This is bad news for several reasons. One of the most important is that the downward ramp appears to be leading to a “skills cascade” in which highly skilled / educated workers take jobs lower down the skill / wage ladder (since there’s not much demand at high levels), which in turn pushes less skilled workers even lower down the ladder, and so on. [Harvard economist] Larry Katz has found that “lots of new college graduates are moving into the service sector, that is, into traditionally non-college jobs, displacing young non-college workers.” Where this all ends is anyone’s guess.
At least one thing seems clear: The time has come to challenge not only the assumption that technological advances necessarily push people to higher-skilled work but also the self-serving Silicon Valley ideology that has wrapped itself around that assumption.
*Authors’ explanation of chart: “We plot the average cognitive task intensity of college graduates over the 1980- 2010 period. We measure cognitive intensity by assigning to each 4 digit occupation an average of their scores for cognitive tasks from the Dictionary of Occupation Titles (DOT). We define cognitive tasks as the non-routine analytic and interactive tasks used in Autor, Levy, and Murnane (2003) in their examination of the skill content of jobs. Movements in this cognitive task intensity index reflect movements in college educated workers across occupations. The figure indicates that average cognitive task intensity for college graduates increased from the early 1980s until about the year 2000 and then declined throughout the rest of the series.”
Image: “Guys and Bikes” by Astrid Westvang.