The New Division of Labor – Book Review

The New Division of Labor: How computers are creating the next job market by Frank Levy and Richard J  Murnane.
Published by Princeton University Press.
Price: £10.95.
ISBN: 0691124027.

“Computers are Janus-facing, helping to create jobs even as they destroy jobs.”

When heavyweight US economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane set out to assess the state of this 40-year-old paradox in their 2004 book, The New Division of Labor – now been published in paperback – they highlighted just how IT today is reshaping the global employment landscape.

Adding the IT dimension to The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith’s 1776 seminal analysis of the segmentation of work that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, the MIT and Harvard professors paint a new world of even greater division. Over the past decade, better-educated individuals have been able to exploit their skills – largely in cognitive thinking and communications – and to use IT to enhance their economic value, while those in jobs that involve a large degree of routine tasks have progressively seen themselves competing – and losing – against automation. The statistics speak volumes: the earning power of a male college graduate has risen by roughly a quarter – in real terms – over the past two decades; the salary of someone who did not go on to tertiary education has fallen by about the same percentage.

With an eye on the possible political tensions that that is causing – as well as an understanding of the impact of economies such as India and China – the authors home in on the skills that are helping some Western workers evolve in line with the changing job market, using a diverse range of case studies – a cardiologist, a school principal, a financial advisor, a car mechanic – to illustrate their ‘employability’.

“Who will have the skills to do the jobs in an economy filled with computers?” The answer is, people who are in a position to acquire the workplace skills necessary for the higher wage jobs involving the processing of complex tasks that require expertise. Those who lack the right skills will “drop down to compete for unskilled work at declining wages.”

The ‘solution’ is a better educated populace; and that is where the arguments lose strength, straying from an economic focus towards a critique against the US education system. Nonetheless, this is compelling reading for anyone in IT and beyond who wants to comprehend how the industry is changing the shape of employment – and individual livelihood.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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