Nicholas Carr: From endless ladder to downward ramp

ATN-300InsightaaS: In a recent post from his Rough Type blog, Internet/IT philosopher Nicolas Carr adds to an ongoing discussion of how workers are finding fewer opportunities for skilled jobs. We have covered this issue on Across the Net in the past, highlighting some intriguing work by Andrew McAfee,, as well as Carr’s earlier post entitled “The Myth of the Endless Ladder.” Here, Carr presents statistics that are even more worrisome than have been discussed previously; while McAfee’s article showed that only very low-skilled and very high-skilled jobs were showing increases in demand, Carr uses economic statistics demonstrating that “average cognitive task intensity for college graduates increased from the early 1980s until about the year 2000 and then declined.” 

A couple of months ago, in the post “The Myth of the Endless Ladder,” I critiqued the widespread assumption that progress in production technology, such as advances in robotics and analytical software, inevitably “frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks,” in the words of economics reporter Annie Lowrey. While such a dynamic has often been true in the past, particularly in the middle years of the last century, there’s no guarantee that it will be true in the future. Evidence is growing, in fact, that a very different dynamic is now playing out, as computers take on more analytical and judgment-making tasks. In place of the endless ladder, we may now have what MIT economics professor and labor-market expert David Autor calls a “downward ramp.” The latest wave of automation technology appears to be “freeing us up” for less-interesting and less-challenging work.

In a New York Times column, Thomas Edsall points to new research, by economists Paul Beaudry, David Green, and Ben Sand, that suggests a widespread erosion in the skill levels of jobs since the year 2000. If in the 20 years leading up to the turn of the millennium we saw a “hollowing” of mid-skill jobs, with employment polarizing between low-skill and high-skill tasks, we now seem to be seeing a rapid loss of high-skill jobs as well. From top to bottom, the researchers report, workers are being pushed down the skill ramp…

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