The end of routine work

In recessions of the 1960s and 1970s, routine jobs would fall during the recession but quickly snap back. But after the recession in 1990, something changed. Routine jobs fell and, as a share of the population, never recovered. In the recessions in 2001 and in 2007-09 they fell even further. The snapback never occurred, suggesting that many firms began coping with recessions by scrapping tasks that could be automated or more easily outsourced.
For his part, Mr. Siu thinks jobs have been taken away by automation, more than by outsourcing. While some manufacturing jobs have clearly gone overseas, “it’s hard to offshore a secretary.” These tasks more likely became unnecessary due to improving technology, he said.
In the late 1980s, routine cognitive jobs were held by about 17% of the population and routine manual jobs by about 16%. Today, that’s declined to about 13.5% and 12%. (The figures are not seasonally adjusted and so are displayed in the chart as 12-month moving averages, to remove seasonal fluctuations).


But they are not among the labor market’s pessimists who fear that robots will render humans obsolete. Their work shows the economy has continued to generate jobs, but with a focus on nonroutine work, especially cognitive. Since the late 1980s, such occupations have added more than 22 million workers.

By Josh Zumbrun. The idea that U.S. unemployment has jumped to a higher plateau because of jobs moving overseas or because they're replaced by technology is not a new one, but it's useful to see data and charts to support the claim.

Brad Delong comments:

Note that these jobs are “routine” only in the sense that they involve using the human brain as a cybernetic control processor in a manner that was outside the capability of automatic physical machinery or software until a generation ago. In the words of Adam Smith (who probably garbled the story):
In the first fire-engines, a boy was constantly employed to open and shut alternately the communication between the boiler and the cylinder, according as the piston either ascended or descended. One of those boys, who loved to play with his companions, observed that, by tying a string from the handle of the valve which opened this communication to another part of the machine, the valve would open and shut without his assistance, and leave him at liberty to divert himself with his playfellows. One of the greatest improvements that has been made upon this machine, since it was first invented, was in this manner the discovery of a boy who wanted to save his own labour…
And Siu and Jaimovich seem to have gotten the classification wrong: A home-appliance repair technician is not doing a routine job–those jobs are disappearing precisely because they are not routine, require considerable expertise, are hence expensive, and so swirly swapping out the defective appliance for a new one is becoming more and more attractive.

As any economist would prescribe, it's become more critical when thinking about one's career and education to focus on humans' comparative advantage versus computers. But I also recommend people focus on their own unique comparative advantage: any intelligent person can do many things, but what can you do better than most anyone else? In winner-take-all markets, more common in this third industrial revolution, it's ideal to give yourself the best chance to be one of those winners, and consider it a bonus that those areas often overlap with one's personal passions (whatever you think of the 10,000 hour rule, most would agree it's easier to sustain through so many hours if one is more emotionally invested).

It's also best to accept that one will have to learn new skills many times in one lifetime. It used to be that once you finished college, the education phase of life was considered over. This is already obsolete for many. Even most programmers, supposedly the most insulated workers from technological job obsolescence, have to learn new programming languages or technologies on the job every few years now.

In the future, education will generally be accepted to mean a lifelong process. Continuing education will be the default. An undergraduate degree will simply be a first milestone in signaling one's skills and sociability to potential employers. More time will have to be set aside to level up, and resources and services to support this lifelong education continue to proliferate. I view the need for lifelong learning as a positive. Who was it that said that you're young at heart to the degree that what you want to learn exceeds what you already know?

Seriously, who said that? I don't know. Add that to my list of things to learn.