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Was Mechanization De-Skilling? The Origins of Task-Biased Technical Change

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  • James Bessen

    (Research on Innovation, Boston University School of Law, Berkman Center for Internet and Society (Harvard))

Abstract

Did nineteenth century technology reduce demand for skilled workers in contrast to modern technology? I obtain direct evidence on human capital investments and the returns to skill by using micro-data on individual weavers and an engineering production function. Weavers learned substantially on the job. While mechanization eliminated some tasks and the associated skills, it increased returns to skill on the remaining tasks. Technical change was task-biased, much as with computer technology. As more tasks were automated, weavers’ human capital increased substantially. Although technology increased the demand for skill like today, weavers’ wages eventually increased and inequality decreased, contrary to current trends.

Suggested Citation

  • James Bessen, 2011. "Was Mechanization De-Skilling? The Origins of Task-Biased Technical Change," Working Papers 1101, Research on Innovation.
  • Handle: RePEc:roi:wpaper:1101
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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. 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.
    2. David Kunst, 2019. "Deskilling among Manufacturing Production Workers," Tinbergen Institute Discussion Papers 19-050/VI, Tinbergen Institute, revised 30 Dec 2020.
    3. Gunther Tichy, 2018. "Polarisierung der beruflichen Anforderungen durch die Digitalisierung?," WIFO Monatsberichte (monthly reports), WIFO, vol. 91(3), pages 177-190, March.
    4. Feldman, Naomi E. & van der Beek, Karine, 2016. "Skill choice and skill complementarity in eighteenth century England," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 59(C), pages 94-113.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    skill-biased technical change; technology; mechanization; human capital; wage inequality; learning-by-doing;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • J31 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Wage Level and Structure; Wage Differentials
    • N31 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
    • O33 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights - - - Technological Change: Choices and Consequences; Diffusion Processes

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