Must-Read: Josh Zumbrun: Is Your Job ‘Routine’? If So, It’s Probably Disappearing

Is Your Job Routine If So It s Probably Disappearing Real Time Economics WSJ

Must-Read: Josh Zumbrun: Is Your Job ‘Routine’? If So, It’s Probably Disappearing: “The American labor market and middle class was once built on the routine job…

…workers showed up at factories and offices, took their places on the assembly line or the paper-pushing chain, did the same task over and over, and then went home. New research from Henry Siu at the University of British Columbia and Nir Jaimovich from Duke University shows just how much the world of routine work has collapsed…. Over the course of the last two recessions and recoveries, a period beginning in 2001, the economy’s job growth has come entirely from nonroutine work…. Examples of routine manual jobs in their classification system include rules-based and physical tasks, such as factory workers who operate welding or metal-press machines, forklift operators or home appliance repairers. Routine cognitive jobs include tasks done by secretaries, bookkeepers, filing clerks or bank tellers…. Nonroutine manual jobs include occupations like janitors or home-health aides. Finally, nonroutine cognitive jobs include tasks like public relations, financial analysis or computer programming….

In the most recent recession, routine jobs collapsed and simply have not recovered, with employment in both cognitive and manual jobs down by more than 5% if the tasks are mostly routine. “Historically these occupations rebounded,” Mr. Siu said. “It suggests a startling fundamental shift in the way the labor market is behaving.”… In the late 1980s, routine cognitive jobs were held by about 17% of the population and routine manual jobs by about 16%. Today, that’s declined to about 13.5% and 12%…. Mr. Siu and Mr. Jaimovich see no reason the trend would abate…

Note that these jobs are “routine” only in the sense that they involve using the human brain as a cybernetic control processor in a manner that was outside the capability of automatic physical machinery or software until a generation ago. In the words of Adam Smith (who probably garbled the story):

In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his playfellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour…

And Siu and Jaimovich seem to have gotten the classification wrong: A home-appliance repair technician is not doing a routine job–those jobs are disappearing precisely because they are not routine, require considerable expertise, are hence expensive, and so swirly swapping out the defective appliance for a new one is becoming more and more attractive.

April 14, 2015

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