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Tasks and Technology in the United States 1880-2000

  • Guy Michaels
  • Ferdinand Rauch
  • Stephen J. Redding

We provide theory and evidence on changes in task inputs in the United States from 1880-2000. We combine a Roy model of worker selection across occupations with a new methodology for measuring individual production tasks performed by workers within occupations. We show that the recently-documented rise in non-routine tasks and decline in manual tasks extends much further back than hitherto thought to the late-nineteenth century. We reveal substantial heterogeneity within these broad categories of tasks, with those involving the formation of ideas increasing by up to twice the growth for non-routine tasks as a whole, and those involving the manipulation of inorganic matter decreasing by nearly twice the overall decline for manual tasks. We establish that these changes in task inputs are explained by new technologies (in particular office and computing machinery) and are larger in urban than in rural areas (implying a transformation in the nature of agglomeration). We show that changes in the wage premia for tasks can account for a substantial proportion of the decline in wage inequality from 1880-1940, the rise in wage inequality from 1940-2000, and the larger rise in wage inequality in urban areas than in rural areas, even after controlling for observed worker characteristics.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 18715.

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Date of creation: Jan 2013
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Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18715
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  8. Becker, Sascha O. & Ekholm, Karolina & Muendler, Marc-Andreas, 2009. "Offshoring and the Onshore Composition of Tasks and Skills," CEPR Discussion Papers 7391, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  9. Michaels, Guy & Rauch, Ferdinand & Redding, Stephen J., 2008. "Urbanization and Structural Transformation," CEPR Discussion Papers 7016, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
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  14. Nathaniel Baum-Snow, 2007. "Did Highways Cause Suburbanization?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 122(2), pages 775-805.
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  16. Jeffrey Lin, 2011. "Technological Adaptation, Cities, and New Work," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 93(2), pages 554-574, May.
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  18. Helsley, Robert W. & Strange, William C., 2007. "Agglomeration, opportunism, and the organization of production," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 62(1), pages 55-75, July.
  19. Rosenthal, Stuart S. & Strange, William C., 2004. "Evidence on the nature and sources of agglomeration economies," Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics, in: J. V. Henderson & J. F. Thisse (ed.), Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics, edition 1, volume 4, chapter 49, pages 2119-2171 Elsevier.
  20. Duranton, Gilles & Jayet, Hubert, 2005. "Is the Division of Labour Limited By the Extent of the Market? Evidence from French Cities," CEPR Discussion Papers 5087, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
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  24. David H. Autor & Michael J. Handel, 2013. "Putting Tasks to the Test: Human Capital, Job Tasks, and Wages," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 31(S1), pages S59 - S96.
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