• Fraser Harper

New tasks, new work

Occupations come and go, and over an extended period major shifts can be seen. The general trend in most developed western economies has been the trend towards greater professional, managerial and technical occupations, with a decline in the number of partly skilled and unskilled ones1. Over the last century, skilled occupations have broadly remained much the same. In 1910, 37% of people were employed in skilled occupations and this had only fallen to 34% by 1990.

Beneath this broad sets of changes, there has been a comparable shift in the tasks people do at work.

At the task level – and just viewing the last five-year period – using O*NET we can see 404 new tasks and 58 revised tasks in the 2014 update. By 2018 we can see 328 new tasks and 60 revised ones. In all, 805 tasks changed in these two updates – around 4% of all tasks in the O*NET database2. If this rate of change were to be consistent then you would expect the whole O*NET task database to be modified in some way of a 100-year period.

At the same time, some tasks have moved to be common to most people – if not all – in the economy. For example, in the UK we have seen a huge rise in the level of self-employment, which requires a financial set of skills to be widely held and now greatly assisted through on-line, pay-as-you-go software packages covering cost capture, time management, invoicing and cash receipt. The need for bookkeepers falls but the need for external audits and overseeing for the filing of annual tax returns and company accounts increases. Tasks and works ebb and flow between occupations. In a similar fashion, food retail outlets increasingly become logistics centres, processing on-line orders and delivering items to domestic addresses. The work task remains but it gets shifted across locations and occupations.

There have been a numerous studies3 that have examined the impact of technology on work. With every wave of new technology (steam, electricity to computing, micro-electronics and artificial intelligence) there have been attempts to identify who and where will be impacted most. There is a tendency for many of these studies to be quite deterministic and prescriptive and often fail to identify mitigating factors and understand the uptake and adaptation of the use of the technology. Plus, how the new technology might re-shape the competitive landscape of an industry and allow new entrants to challenge former successful incumbents and redefine whole industries. We have seen this in banking, telecommunications and retail, but not yet in the more labour-intensive services like health care, nursing, and education where high cognitive skills are required on both the technical and interpersonal sides.

What has differentiated the initial work on technology, employment and skills and their interaction from the work of today has been the use of detailed occupational information data.

Much of the occupational data have come from the US and Europe. Increasingly, data is extended by the use of on-line job adverts to provide real-time validation. Increasingly, there have been efforts to add data on the capabilities of individuals by extracting personal profiles from such websites as LinkedIn, but we have yet to see the major labour brokers such as Manpower or the major CV sites combine their ‘supply side’ data with ‘demand side’ occupational data. It seems to us that it is only a matter of time before this happens. At that point, we will then have a more complete view of the labour market.

Near real-time labour market information will soon be with us and will most certainly be centred on the extensive use of occupational information.


  1. Wyatt, I.D. & Hecker, D.E. (2006) “Occupational changes during the 20th century”, Monthly Labour Review, 129 (3), 35-57 (for the USA), and Hicks, J. & Allen, G. (1999) A century of change: trends in UK statistics since 1900. House of Common Library 99/111. 21st December 1999. 34 pages (for the UK)

  2. See https://www.onetcenter.org taken from the updates: 20.1 and 23.2

  3. British Academy and The Royal Society (2018) The Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Work. An evidence synthesis on implications for individuals, communities and societies. 44 pages; Hogarth, T. (ed) (2018) Economy, Employment and Skills: European, Regional and Global Perspectives in an Age of Uncertainty. Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini. 306 pages; Pouliakas, K. (2018) Determinants of Automation in the EU Labour Market: A Skills-Needs Approach. IZA DP No 11829. 30 pages; and, Frey, C. & Osborne, M. (2017) “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation”, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, 254-280. The McKinsey Global Institute have produced a series of major studies on the topic which have shaped much of current thinking and the drive for new country-level policy programmes much as the Science Policy Research Unit (University of Sussex) did during the 1970s and 1980s.

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