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Technical Change and the Relative Demand for Skilled Labor: The United States in Historical Perspective

In: Human Capital in History: The American Record

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  • Lawrence F. Katz
  • Robert A. Margo

Abstract

This paper examines shifts over time in the relative demand for skilled labor in the United States. Although de-skilling in the conventional sense did occur overall in nineteenth century manufacturing, a more nuanced picture is that occupations "hollowed out": the share of "middle-skill" jobs - artisans - declined while those of "high-skill" - white collar, non-production workers - and "low-skill" - operatives and laborers increased. De-skilling did not occur in the aggregate economy; rather, the aggregate shares of low skill jobs decreased, middle skill jobs remained steady, and high skill jobs expanded from 1850 to the early twentieth century. The pattern of monotonic skill upgrading continued through much of the twentieth century until the recent "polarization" of labor demand since the late 1980s. New archival evidence on wages suggests that the demand for high skill (white collar) workers grew more rapidly than the supply starting well before the Civil War.
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Suggested Citation

  • Lawrence F. Katz & Robert A. Margo, 2014. "Technical Change and the Relative Demand for Skilled Labor: The United States in Historical Perspective," NBER Chapters,in: Human Capital in History: The American Record, pages 15-57 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberch:12888
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Atack, Jeremy & Bateman, Fred & Margo, Robert A., 2004. "Skill Intensity and Rising Wage Dispersion in Nineteenth-Century American Manufacturing," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 64(01), pages 172-192, March.
    2. Atack, Jeremy & Bateman, Fred & Margo, Robert A., 2008. "Steam power, establishment size, and labor productivity growth in nineteenth century American manufacturing," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 45(2), pages 185-198, April.
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    Cited by:

    1. Jeanne Lafortune & José Tessada & Ethan Lewis, 2015. "People and Machines A Look at the Evolving Relationship Between Capital and Skill In Manufacturing 1860-1930 Using Immigration Shocks," Documentos de Trabajo 463, Instituto de Economia. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile..
    2. Ojala, Jari & Pehkonen, Jaakko & Eloranta, Jari, 2016. "Deskilling and decline in skill premium during the age of sail: Swedish and Finnish seamen, 1751–1913," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 61(C), pages 85-94.
    3. Ager, Philipp & Hansen, Casper Worm, 2017. "Closing Heaven's Door: Evidence from the 1920s U.S. Immigration Quota Acts," Discussion Papers of Business and Economics 11/2017, University of Southern Denmark, Department of Business and Economics.
    4. D’Ippolito, Beatrice & Miozzo, Marcela & Consoli, Davide, 2014. "Knowledge systematisation, reconfiguration and the organisation of firms and industry: The case of design," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 43(8), pages 1334-1352.
    5. Jonas Hjort & Jonas Poulsen, 2017. "The Arrival of Fast Internet and Employment in Africa," NBER Working Papers 23582, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Seth G. Benzell & Laurence J. Kotlikoff & Guillermo LaGarda & Jeffrey D. Sachs, 2015. "Robots Are Us: Some Economics of Human Replacement," NBER Working Papers 20941, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Kaldewei, Cornelia & Weller, Jürgen, 2013. "Empleo, crecimiento sostenible e igualdad," Macroeconomía del Desarrollo 145, Naciones Unidas Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL).
    8. Claudia Olivetti, 2014. "The Female Labor Force and Long-Run Development: The American Experience in Comparative Perspective," NBER Chapters,in: Human Capital in History: The American Record, pages 161-197 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Frey, Carl Benedikt & Osborne, Michael A., 2017. "The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?," Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Elsevier, vol. 114(C), pages 254-280.
    10. Stefan Leknes & Jørgen Modalsli, 2018. "Who benefited from industrialization? The local effects of hydropower technology adoption," Discussion Papers 874, Statistics Norway, Research Department.
    11. repec:taf:jdevst:v:53:y:2017:i:10:p:1731-1747 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. Yuki, Kazuhiro, 2012. "Mechanization, task assignment, and inequality," MPRA Paper 37754, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    13. Gray, Rowena, 2013. "Taking technology to task: The skill content of technological change in early twentieth century United States," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 50(3), pages 351-367.
    14. Yi Long & Christopher Nyland & Russell Smyth, 2017. "Fiscal Decentralisation, the Knowledge Economy and School Teachers’ Wages in Urban China," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 53(10), pages 1731-1747, October.
    15. Zachary Ward, 2016. "The Role of English Fluency in Migrant Assimilation: Evidence from United States History," CEH Discussion Papers 049, Centre for Economic History, Research School of Economics, Australian National University.
    16. David Autor, 2014. "Polanyi's Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth," NBER Working Papers 20485, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    17. Aykut Lenger, 2016. "The inter-industry employment effects of technological change," Journal of Productivity Analysis, Springer, vol. 46(2), pages 235-248, December.
    18. Jung, Sungmoon & Lee, Jeong-Dong & Hwang, Won-Sik & Yeo, Yeongjun, 2017. "Growth versus equity: A CGE analysis for effects of factor-biased technical progress on economic growth and employment," Economic Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 60(C), pages 424-438.
    19. Patrizio Pagano & Massimo Sbracia, 2014. "The secular stagnation hypothesis: a review of the debate and some insights," Questioni di Economia e Finanza (Occasional Papers) 231, Bank of Italy, Economic Research and International Relations Area.
    20. Martin Fiszbein, 2017. "Agricultural Diversity, Structural Change and Long-run Development: Evidence from the U.S," NBER Working Papers 23183, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    21. Florian Brugger & Christian Gehrke, 2017. "Skilling and Deskilling Technological Change in Classical Economic Theory and Its Empirical Evidence," Working Paper Series, Social and Economic Sciences 2017-02, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Karl-Franzens-University Graz.
    22. Joel Mokyr & Chris Vickers & Nicolas L. Ziebarth, 2015. "The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 29(3), pages 31-50, Summer.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J23 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Labor Demand
    • N11 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
    • N12 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - U.S.; Canada: 1913-

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