Case in Point: Computer Technology Increases the Demand for Some Workers and Reduces the Demand for Others

Computer Technology Increases the Demand for Some Workers and Reduces the Demand for Others

“Moving an object, performing a calculation, communicating a piece of information or resolving a discrepancy. . . Which of these tasks can be performed by a computer?” ask economists David H. Autor, Frank Levy, and Richard J. Murname.

In general, computers are good at performing routine tasks and substitute for labor that had performed such tasks in the past. Conversely, computers are complements for workers performing nonroutine tasks, i.e., tasks that require such attributes as creativity, flexibility, and problem-solving. As the price of computers has fallen in recent decades, the demand for labor performing nonroutine tasks, usually college-educated workers, has grown, while the demand for labor performing routine tasks has fallen. The table below illustrates how computerization likely affects demand for different kinds of labor.

Chart showing workplace tools, like analytic and interactive tasks such as record-keeping calculation, forming/testing hypotheses, medical diagnosis and legal writing, or manual tasks such as picking, sorting, or janitorial services.

Figure 12.5. Predictions of Task Model for the Impact of Computerization on Four Categories of Workplace Tasks


In studying the impact of computerization on labor demand, the study’s authors have also noted that changes in the nature of certain tasks (“task-shifting”) stemming from computerization have markedly changed what an occupation encompasses.

For example, the Department of Labor’s Occupation Outlook Handbook in 1976 described what secretaries do as: “Secretaries relieve their employers of routine duties so they can work on more important matters. Although most secretaries type, take shorthand, and deal with callers, the time spent on these duties varies in different types of organizations.” In contrast, the 2000 edition of the Handbook describes the work of secretaries quite differently: “As technology continues to expand in offices across the Nation, the role of the secretary has greatly evolved. Office automation and organizational restructuring have led secretaries to assume a wide range of new responsibilities once reserved for managerial and professional staff. Many secretaries now provide training and orientation to new staff, conduct research on the Internet, and learn to operate new office technologies.” The authors find that this task-shifting within occupations, away from routine tasks and towards nonroutine tasks, is pervasive.