Are New Technologies Changing the Nature of Work? The Evidence So Far

Report by Kristyn Frank and Marc Frenette for the Institute for Research on Public Policy (Canada): “In recent years, ground breaking advances in artificial intelligence and their implications for automation technology have fuelled speculation that the very nature of work is being altered in unprecedented ways. News headlines regularly refer to the ”changing nature of work,” but what does it mean? Is there evidence that work has already been transformed by the new technologies? And if so, are these changes more dramatic than those experienced before?

In this paper, Kristyn Frank and Marc Frenette offer insights on these questions, based on the new research they conducted with their colleague Zhe Yang at Statistics Canada. Two aspects of work are under the microscope: the mix of work activities (or tasks) that constitute a job, and the mix of jobs in the economy. If new automation technologies are indeed changing the nature of work, the authors argue, then nonautomatable tasks should be increasingly important, and employment should be shifting toward occupations primarily involving such tasks.

According to the authors, nonroutine cognitive tasks (analytical or interpersonal) did become more important between 2011 and 2018. However, the changes were relatively modest, ranging from a 1.5 percent increase in the average importance of establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships, to a 3.7 percent increase in analyzing data or information. Routine cognitive tasks — such as data entry — also gained importance, but these gains were even smaller. The picture is less clear for routine manual tasks, as the importance of tasks for which the pace is determined by the speed of equipment declined by close to 3 percent, whereas other tasks in that category became slightly more important.

Looking at longer-term shifts in overall employment, between 1987 and 2018, the authors find a gradual increase in the share of workers employed in occupations associated with nonroutine tasks, and a decline in routine-task-related occupations. The most pronounced shift in employment was away from production, craft, repair and operative occupations toward managerial, professional and technical occupations. However, they note that this shift to nonroutine occupations was not more pronounced between 2011 and 2018 than it was in the preceding decades. For instance, the share of employment in managerial, professional and technical occupations increased by 1.8 percentage points between 2011 and 2018, compared with a 6 percentage point increase between 1987 and 2010.

Most sociodemographic groups experienced the shift toward nonroutine jobs, although there were some exceptions. For instance, the employment share of workers in managerial, professional and technical occupations increased for all workers, but much more so for women than for men. Interestingly, there was a decline in the employment shares of workers in these occupations among those with a post-­secondary education. The explanation for this lies in the major increase over the past three decades in the proportion of workers with post-secondary education, which led some of them to move into jobs for which they are overqualified….(More)”.