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Taking Technology to Task: The Skill Content of Technological Change in Early Twentieth Century United States

  • Rowena Gray


    (University of Essex, UK)

This paper presents a new picture of the labor market effects of technological change in pre-WWII United States. I show that, similar to the recent computerization episode, the electrification of the manufacturing sector led to a "hollowing out" of the skill distribution whereby workers in the middle of the distribution lost out to those at the extremes. To conduct this analysis, a new dataset detailing the task composition of occupations in the United States for the period 1880-1940 was constructed using information about the task content of over 4,000 occupations from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (1949). This unique data was used to measure the skill content of electrification in U.S. manufacturing. OLS estimates show that electrification increased the demand for clerical, numerical, planning and people skills relative to manual skills while simultaneously reducing relative demand for the dexterity-intensive jobs which comprised the middle of the skill distribution. Thus, early twentieth century technological change was unskill-biased for blue collar tasks but skill-biased on aggregate. These results are in line with the downward trend in wage differentials within U.S. manufacturing up to 1950. To overcome any threat to the exogeneity of the electricity measure, due for example to endogenous technological change, 2 instrumental variable strategies were developed. The first uses cross-state differences in the timing of adoption of state-level utility regulation while the second exploits differences in state-level geography that encouraged the development of hydro-power generation and thus made electricity cheaper. The results from these regressions support the main conclusions of the paper.

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Paper provided by European Historical Economics Society (EHES) in its series Working Papers with number 0009.

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Length: 47 pages
Date of creation: Oct 2011
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:hes:wpaper:0009
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