Carving out the middle: how we must respond to the dangers of the polarization of work


One of the consistent themes in my Future of Work framework is the polarization of work and value.

In a number of the keynotes and workshops I’ve run recently, including at the Richmond Financial Services Forum in Interlaken, the Institute of Chartered Accountants conference in Melbourne, and for the executive teams of various corporate clients, I’ve pointed to research from noted labor economist David Autor that brings into focus what is happening.

Source: The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market, David Autor

In the chart you can see that in the US in the 1980s there was strong growth in high-skill jobs and a reduction in low-skill jobs, in the 1990s there was massive growth in high-skill jobs and a little growth in low-skill jobs, and in 1999-2007 there was high growth in low-skill jobs and a little growth in high-skill jobs.

At no point was there growth in middle-skilled jobs.

I have written before about How divergence in labor productivity is shaping the future of work and What we can do about the global polarization of work.

The reality is that rise of the connected, networked economy, with the associated power law distribution, is implicitly driving the polarization of value, including of work.

That is wonderful for those who benefit from the connected world. However it is potentially tragic not just for those whose work – and implicit social value – is commoditized, but also for the mass of society who have decent skills but fewer and fewer opportunities.

Of course there is much that governments, companies, and educational institutions can – and must – do to respond to these trends.

Job creation initiatives must be focused on work that cannot readily be supplanted by machines, otherwise the gains will be fleeting.

A focus on expertise, innovation, and relationships in work and ongoing education will create sustainable opportunities.

We must strive to humanize work, both high-skilled and low-skilled, so that it brings out the best of who we are.

The availability of excellent continuing education for all is critical, and fortunately the rise of open education and certification greatly supports that.

There is far more that can be done. The starting point is a broad-based recognition of these powerful trends and their potential implications, and taking concerted action in response to create a better future for all.

  • Cheryl Doig

    Thanks for the reminder about humanising work Glen. I agree that we need to focus on amplifying the skills of creativity, relationships and expertise that at this stage cannot be catered for by technology. We are already seeing white collar workers losing jobs because technology has the capability of doing more. There is also a continued reminder of the ‘growth of the middle classes’, in the BRIC countries in particular. Do you see this increasing polarisation?

    • Thanks Cheryl, it’s an interesting point. One of the key issues is whether the polarization is predominantly in highly developed economies. In short, it probably is for now and we will see the middle-class grow strongly in developing nations, however as labor is globalized similar effects will impact more broadly across the world. There is much that is unknown in how this might play out.

  • Paul

    Good observations – would be nice to see what the current and expected trends are, esp. in light of the discussions around the impact of robotics /automation/ population growth on the total number of jobs.
    One possible clue, though it could just be the economic crisis in Europe: ‘paying to do work’:
    (translation is a bit rough as always)