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Work of the Past, Work of the Future

NBER 2019.02.27
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Labor markets in U.S. cities today are vastly more educated and skill-intensive than they were five decades ago. Yet, urban non-college workers perform substantially less skilled work than decades earlier. This deskilling reflects the joint effects of automation and international trade, which have eliminated the bulk of non-college production, administrative support, and clerical jobs, yielding a disproportionate polarization of urban labor markets. The unwinding of the urban non-college occupational skill gradient has, I argue, abetted a secular fall in real non-college wages by: (1) shunting non-college workers out of specialized middle-skill occupations into low-wage occupations that require only generic skills; (2) diminishing the set of non-college workers that hold middle-skill jobs in high-wage cities; and (3) attenuating, to a startling degree, the steep urban wage premium for non-college workers that prevailed in earlier decades. Changes in the nature of work―many of which are technological in origin―have been more disruptive and less beneficial for non-college than college workers.

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