Digital age

Are computers making work more routine and less social?

The spread of ICT in the economy is changing both the types of jobs that employ people and the types of tasks that people perform in their jobs. The latest research on the content of work suggests that computerisation has boosted the proportion of jobs with social interaction at their core, while at the same time reducing social tasks within certain jobs.

 

 

Eurostat data on EU enterprises employing 10 or more people (excluding financial sector enterprises) show that 98% use computers, and 97% have internet access. [1] Around 60 % of all individuals active in the labour market use computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets or other portable devices at work.

Computerisation is enabling the substitution of humans by machines for the performance of some tasks, especially tasks that are easier to codify and so can be performed by machines following explicit programmed rules. [2] On the other hand, the risk of substitution tends to be much lower for jobs that require physical proximity, flexible interpersonal communication and social skills in general – jobs typical of the service sector.

Impact of technological transformation

However, technological transformations not only change the types of jobs available to people, they can also contribute to changes in the task content of jobs over time. In most cases, machines replace some tasks but not others, so the content of jobs and occupations evolves. In Europe, 21% of workers reported that their main job tasks recently changed because of the introduction of new software or computerised equipment. [3] Predicting what jobs may be more at risk of automation based on their current task composition and intensity gives only a partial insight to the potential effect of digital technologies on work and employment, however.

To gain a better insight, Eurofound and the European Commission Joint Research Centre have studied empirical evidence on the evolution of the content, methods and tools of work in European jobs over the period 1995–2015. The study tries to better understand the changes that have occurred in the tasks performed at work over time. Are they the result of changes in the levels of employment across jobs; in other words, have jobs that involve routine tasks declined in relative terms in recent years? Or are they a result of changes in the average intensity of tasks within jobs; that is, do jobs require fewer routine tasks to be performed? Or are both dynamics at work?

Fewer routine jobs, more routine tasks

The analysis reveals a contrasting trend between how the tasks within jobs have changed and the change in the employment levels across jobs for three particularly important categories of tasks: repetitive and standardised tasks (the two components of routine work) and social tasks. As the table below shows, repetitive and standardised tasks are declining in compositional terms, meaning that employment in routine jobs is shrinking. However, workers are reporting a significant increase in the levels of these types of tasks within jobs. In other words, there are fewer routine jobs, but work is generally becoming more routine. These contrasting currents are particularly surprising in the context of the current debates on the impact of technological change on employment, because it implies an actual increase in the total levels of routine at work notwithstanding a marginal decline in the proportion of routine occupations in the economy.

Table: Change in job tasks reported by workers and compositional change in employment, 1995–2015, EU15

More social jobs, fewer social tasks

The opposite trend can be found in the case of social tasks. Over the last 20 years, there has been significant compositional growth in social tasks; in other words, jobs with greater social task content have expanded relative to the rest. But there has been a decline in the amount of social tasks people actually do in those (and other) jobs over the same period. This is particularly evident for some specific service activities, like financial intermediation, where social interaction has fallen by around 22%. This is not surprising if we think, for example, of how the work of bank employees has changed since the advent of online and mobile banking and the increasing need for fast and seamless cash-free payments through digital interfaces. Likewise, the use of financial algorithms has changed the way brokers operate, who rely more on computers and spend less time dealing directly with people.

A plausible hypothesis is that computers are behind these paradoxical trends. Over 1995–2015, there was an extraordinary increase of 64.2% in the reported levels of computer use at work in Europe. As has been repeatedly argued in the literature, computers may have replaced labour input for the performance of some routine tasks, displacing labour towards jobs with more social task content. But at the same time, computers can have contributed to making all jobs more routine, by standardising and codifying work practices, and less social, by facilitating indirect and algorithmic forms of service provision.

Image © Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov


References

  1. ^ Eurostat (2018), Digital economy and society database , European Commission.
  2. ^ Autor, D., Levy, F. and Murnane, R. J. (2003), The skill content of recent technological change: An empirical exploration Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 118, No. 4, pp. 1279–1333.
  3. ^ See Note 1.

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