Automatic Reaction”

The Economist; September 9, 2010

In the 1970s and 1980s employ­ment in quin­tes­sen­tially middle-skilled, middle-income occupations—salespeople, bank clerks, sec­re­taries, machine oper­a­tors and fac­tory supervisors—grew faster than that in lower-skilled jobs. But around the early 1990s, some­thing changed. Labour mar­kets across the rich coun­tries shifted from a world where people’s job and wage prospects were directly related to their skill lev­els. Instead, with only a few excep­tions, employ­ment in middle-class jobs began to decline as a share of the total while the share of both low- and high-skilled jobs rose (see chart). The pat­tern was sim­i­lar in coun­tries with very dif­fer­ent lev­els of union­i­sa­tion, preva­lence of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and wel­fare sys­tems. This “polar­i­sa­tion” of employ­ment almost cer­tainly had a com­mon cause.  The devel­op­ment of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy (IT) is the lead­ing can­di­date. Computers do not directly com­pete with the abstract, ana­lyt­i­cal tasks that many high-skilled work­ers do, but aid their pro­duc­tiv­ity by speed­ing up the more rou­tine bits of their jobs. But they do directly affect the need for peo­ple like assembly-line work­ers or those doing cer­tain cler­i­cal tasks, whose jobs can be reduced to a set of instruc­tions which a machine can eas­ily fol­low (and which can con­se­quently be mech­a­nised). At the other end of the employ­ment spec­trum, as the exam­ple of the towel-folding robot neatly demon­strates, low-skilled jobs may not require much edu­ca­tion but they are very hard to mechanise.”