The declining economic value of routine cognitive work

Workforce data show that U.S. employees continue to do more non-routine cognitive and interpersonal work. [Note: these data tend to be fairly similar for most developed countries, not just the U.S.]

Fewer and fewer employment opportunities exist in America for both routine cognitive work and manual labor, and the gap is widening over the decades. Unless they’re location-dependent, manual labor jobs often are outsourced to cheaper locations overseas. Unless they’re location-dependent, routine cognitive jobs are increasingly being replaced both by cheaper workers overseas and by software algorithms.

What kind of schoolwork do most American students do most of the time? Routine cognitive work. What kind of work is emphasized in nearly all of our national and state assessment schemes? Routine cognitive work. For what kind of work do traditionalist parents and politicians continue to advocate? Routine cognitive work.


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Some information from Autor & Price (2013) that may be helpful…

  • Routine manual tasks – activities like production and monitoring jobs performed on an assembly line; easily automated and often replaced by machines; picking, sorting, repetitive assembly (p. 2)
  • Non-routine manual tasks – activities that demand situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and perhaps in-person interaction; require modest amounts of training; activities like driving a truck, cleaning a hotel room, or preparing a meal (pp. 2-3)
  • Routine mental tasks – activities that are sufficiently well-defined that they can be carried out by a less-educated worker in a developing country with minimal discretion; also increasingly replaced by computer software algorithms; activities like bookkeeping, clerical work, information processing and record-keeping (e.g., data entry), and repetitive customer service (pp. 1-2)
  • Non-routine mental tasks – activities that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion, and creativity; facilitated and complemented by computers, not replaced by them; hypothesis testing, diagnosing, analyzing, writing, persuading, managing people; typical of professional, managerial, technical, and creative professions such as science, engineering, law, medicine, design, and marketing (p. 2)

3 Responses to “The declining economic value of routine cognitive work”

  1. As a homeschool parent, I try to keep in mind the future in which my children will work and live. Critical thinking, global awareness, collaboration, problem solving….

    Thank you – this is very helpful!

  2. Hi, Scott,

    Thank you for this post, which is timely and particularly relevant in light of many states’ adoption of the Common Core Standards, the goals of which include making students’ learning relevant to the 21st century and stimulating students’ abilities to read, think, and write analytically. For my Master’s program in Educational Curriculum and Instruction, we’re discussing Daniel Pink’s DRIVE, and I couldn’t help but note the parallels between Pink’s ideas and your above thoughts on the perils of assigning students routine cognitive work, when the economic shift is moving away from the need for routine cognitive work in the American workforce. Pink also discusses the trend toward outsourcing routine cognitive work, and in the Master’s program we’re also considering Pink’s ideas on fostering intrinsic motivation. What are your thoughts on CCSS– do you believe that the CCSS’ emphasis on collaboration, the inclusion of technology-based learning, and analysis through more expository pieces work toward educating our students to transcend routing cognitive work? Thanks again for a compelling post.

  3. HI Scott,

    A very interesting post. However, I would have to disagree with the position on non repetitive cognitive tasks. Australia is an early adopter of new technology and many times we find ourselves ahead of the USA in adoption of new technology.

    The legal field in our country has been badly effected by outsourcing and automation. we have so many unemployed lawyers that many have had to retrain in other fields. Pharmacy and nursing have been hit hard by automation.

    I fear that even non-repetitive cognitive will not be safe from developments in AI.

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