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The "Task Approach" to Labor Markets: An Overview

  • David H. Autor

An emerging literature argues that changes in the allocation of workplace "tasks" between capital and labor, and between domestic and foreign workers, has altered the structure of labor demand in industrialized countries and fostered employment polarization--that is, rising employment in the highest and lowest paid occupations. Analyzing this phenomenon within the canonical production function framework is challenging, however, because the assignment of tasks to labor and capital in the canonical model is essentially static. This essay sketches an alternative model of the assignment of skills to tasks based upon comparative advantage, reviews key conceptual and practical challenges that researchers face in bringing the "task approach" to the data, and cautions against two common pitfalls that pervade the growing task literature. I conclude with a cautiously optimistic forecast for the potential of the task approach to illuminate the interactions among skill supplies, technological capabilities, and trade and offshoring opportunities, in shaping the aggregate demand for skills, the assignment of skills to tasks, and the evolution of wages.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 18711.

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Date of creation: Jan 2013
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Publication status: published as Autor, David H., 2013. "The "task approach" to labor markets : an overview," Journal for Labour Market Research, Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (IAB), Nürnberg [Institute for Employment Research, Nuremberg, Germany], vol. 46(3), pages 185-199.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18711
Note: LS
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  1. Arnaud Costinot & Jonathan Vogel, 2009. "Matching and Inequality in the World Economy," NBER Working Papers 14672, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Alan S. Blinder & Alan B. Krueger, 2009. "Alternative Measures of Offshorability: A Survey Approach," NBER Working Papers 15287, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. James Bessen, 2011. "Was Mechanization De-Skilling? The Origins of Task-Biased Technical Change," Working Papers 1101, Research on Innovation.
  4. Neal, Derek, 1999. "The Complexity of Job Mobility among Young Men," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 17(2), pages 237-61, April.
  5. Antonczyk, Dirk & DeLeire, Thomas C. & Fitzenberger, Bernd, 2010. "Polarization and Rising Wage Inequality: Comparing the U.S. and Germany," IZA Discussion Papers 4842, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  6. Firpo, Sergio & Fortin, Nicole M & Lemieux, Thomas, 2012. "Occupational tasks and changes in the wage structure," Textos para discussão 284, Escola de Economia de São Paulo, Getulio Vargas Foundation (Brazil).
  7. Dinardo, J.E. & Pischke, J.S., 1996. "The Returns to Computer Use Revisited: Have Pencils Changed the Wage Structure Too?," Working papers 96-12, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  8. Christina Gathmann & Uta Schönberg, 2010. "How General Is Human Capital? A Task-Based Approach," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 28(1), pages 1-49, 01.
  9. Sandra E. Black & Alexandra Spitz-Oener, 2010. "Explaining Women's Success: Technological Change and the Skill Content of Women's Work," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 92(1), pages 187-194, February.
  10. Alexandra Spitz-Oener, 2006. "Technical Change, Job Tasks, and Rising Educational Demands: Looking outside the Wage Structure," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(2), pages 235-270, April.
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