The New Division of Labor

As computers make inroads on every aspect of business, will people cease to matter? That’s the underlying question of this fascinating examination of the new labor market. In lucid prose, Levy and Murnane-economics professors at MIT and Harvard, respectively, and co-authors of the 1996 bestseller Teaching the New Basic Skills-present their answer, and their expectations regarding how computers will affect future wages and job distributions. They begin by debunking the common perception that computers eliminate jobs; the truth, they say, is that “computers are Janus-faced, helping to create jobs even as they destroy jobs.” Supported by trend data-clearly laid out in charts, graphs and extensive footnotes-they argue that every technical advance since the introduction of computers to the workplace “shifts works away from routine tasks and towards tasks requiring expert thinking and complex communication.” Levy and Murnane also assert that, while it is easy to point to all the new service economy jobs that involve standing behind fast-food counters, the majority of newly created jobs have put workers behind desks, in control of computers and in front of other humans where they are asked to use cognitive skills that outstrip any computer’s capability. But if the replacement of humans by computers isn’t a realistic crisis, the authors do point out another looming problem: a possible shortage in properly trained workers. Blue-collar and clerical workers displaced by computers already have a difficult time adjusting to the requirements of the new high-wage jobs, and, if educational curriculums aren’t changed to reflect the market’s demand for sophisticated thinking and communication, students may graduate without the skills they need either. Readers interested in labor and technology shouldn’t be put off by this book’s dull cover art. Its contents are anything but boring.
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