If you feel your job is increasingly oriented around digital technologies these days, take some comfort in this: You’re part of a movement. Across the economy, many people are feeling that way. The level of digitalization in offices, factories, warehouses, and malls has sped up rapidly in the last 15 years, and it’s getting harder for humans to keep up with the machines.
The Brookings Institution looked at the digital content of jobs across the U.S. for a new report. It found that digitalization levels increased in 517 out of 545 occupations (or 90% of the economy) between 2002 and 2016–sometimes dramatically so.
Robots and artificial intelligence tend to win the headlines. But automation’s impact on employment has more often involved prosaic, everyday technology, from Microsoft Office to Peoplesoft supply chain management systems. We tend to underestimate the effect of these boring-but-pervasive products, says Mark Muro, Brookings senior fellow, and one of the authors of the report.
“We have every indication that units are being sold, but we don’t have a lot of data about the use of these technologies in particular workplaces and by particular people,” Muro says in an interview.
“We think digitalization is proceeding very rapidly everywhere, but it is occurring at very different rates for different people, groups, and particular industries and firms. And it has a strong geographic variation.”
Brookings turned to the Occupational Information Network (O*Net), a database compiling interviews from thousands of jobholders. Jobs with more than 60 points on the O*Net digitalization scale include software development (94) and financial analysis (73). Those scoring 33 to 60–medium digital jobs–include sales manager (60) and registered nurse (55). Low digital jobs, scoring less than 33 points, include construction laborer (17) and personal care aide (14). Across all jobs, digitalization rose on average 57%, with scores rising from an average 29 (out of 100) to 46 points.
The big finding is that new jobs increasingly require digital chops. Jobs needing more than 60 points tripled their share of employment to 23% by last year. Those needing 33 to 60 points increased their share slightly, from 39.5% to 47.5%. But low digital jobs fell from a 56% to 30% share. In other words, the action in the jobs market tends to be around higher-grade digital skills. Since 2010, two-thirds of new jobs (about 8 million) required either high- or medium-level digital skills, the report says.
Digitalization is associated with higher incomes, greater job security, and general prosperity, but it’s a double-edged sword. The same technology can make one person rich and another person lose her job; it can lead to polarization both in income and geographically, carving one region of the country from another; it can increase inequality.
“Digitalization is vastly expanding the potential of the economy, and generating opportunities for many. However, the construction of an inclusive labor market as digitalization proceeds won’t happen by itself,” the report says.
Cities and regions can make themselves more resilient to automation by investing in up-skilling, competency- and work-based training, accelerated learning programs, STEM and digital literacy, as well as the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence capacity of people (these being skills that robots don’t have).
“Yes, the nation needs to work to bolster its pipeline of IT professionals, but we also have serious digital inclusion issues to think about,” Muro says. “Not everyone needs to learn how to code. But they should be learning how to use Microsoft, Salesforce, and basic productivity software.”
The digital divide is particularly acute for women and people of color. “They are also not well represented in the high-digital occupations right now driving the biggest job and pay growth,” Muro says. “Women are largely consigned to un-digital or physical occupations. African Americans are largely in middle-digital occupations.”