NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Technical Change and the Relative Demand for Skilled Labor: The United States in Historical Perspective

Lawrence F. Katz, Robert A. Margo


This chapter is a preliminary draft unless otherwise noted. It may not have been subjected to the formal review process of the NBER. This page will be updated as the chapter is revised.

Chapter in forthcoming NBER book Human Capital in History: The American Record, Leah P. Boustan, Carola Frydman, and Robert A. Margo, editors
Conference held December 7-8, 2012
Forthcoming from University of Chicago Press

This chapter examines shifts over time in the relative demand for skilled labor in the United States. Although de-skilling in the conventional sense did occur overall in nineteenth century manufacturing, a more nuanced picture is that occupations “hollowed out”: the share of “middle-skill” jobs – artisans – declined while those of “high-skill” – white collar, non-production workers – and “low-skill” – operatives and laborers increased. De-skilling did not occur in the aggregate economy; rather, the aggregate shares of low skill jobs decreased, middle skill jobs remained steady, and high skill jobs expanded from 1850 to the early twentieth century. The pattern of monotonic skill upgrading continued through much of the twentieth century until the recent “polarization” of labor demand since the late 1980s. New archival evidence on wages suggests that the demand for high skill (white collar) workers grew more rapidly than the supply starting well before the Civil War.

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This paper was revised on November 1, 2013

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This chapter first appeared as NBER working paper w18752, Technical Change and the Relative Demand for Skilled Labor: The United States in Historical Perspective, Lawrence F. Katz, Robert A. Margo
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