Jobs in the digital era work differently

CEO Randstad Holding NV‌


"We are the children of a technological age. We have found streamlined ways of doing much of our routine work. Printing is no longer the only way of reproducing books. Reading them, however, has not changed.” Lawrence Clark Powell

Ongoing innovation in technology is changing labour markets worldwide. To understand the future of work in the digital era, we need to move away from the traditional economic classification of manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors. The main differentiator in the digital era is routine tasks versus non-routine tasks. Medium-skilled workers performing routine-tasks in particular run the risk of being replaced by computers doing their job more efficiently, while the share of employment in non-routine tasks is growing. Research on the “Future of Work in the Digital Age” by KU Leuven and Utrecht University, and commissioned by Randstad for the flexibility@work 2016 publication, outlines the transition currently taking place in the labour market. For this the researchers assessed two related phenomena: deindustrialisation and job polarisation in OECD countries. These phenomena capture the shifting composition of a labour market, which is clearly in transition. Next to the decrease in manufacturing in the developed countries, the growth in services can be decomposed into low-tech, low-paying and high-tech, high-paying employment, which reveals the current trend of the job polarisation.

Job polarisation captures the increasing importance of the least and most paid occupations in the economy at the expense of mid-level jobs. In response to the digital economy many new markets and jobs are being created, but many existing jobs are and will be eliminated, or will have to be significantly re-tooled in the process. Medium-paid jobs, such as machine operators and assemblers; office clerks and customer service clerks are disappearing as a result of automatisation, robotics and outsourcing. The research shows this phenomenon is taking place in all developed countries and across all sectors, with an emphasis on manufacturing.

There is a second kind of job polarisation occurring: both the least and most innovative or tech-intense sectors are increasing their employment share. In developed economies, investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics–the socalled STEM disciplines–is increasingly seen as a means of boosting innovation and economic growth. The tech-intensive sectors create high-tech STEM jobs which are typically more productive and therefore generate additional demand. These companies tend to concentrate in high-tech hubs where high-paid workers employed in STEM occupations are likely to spend their income on local non-routine services. The research shows that the creation of a single high-tech job generates between 2.5 and 4.4 additional jobs outside tech-intensive sectors in these high-tech regions. This is an important fact because, contrary to what is sometimes claimed, boosting high-tech employment helps, rather than hurts, employment growth at the lower end of the labour market.

In many areas and regions employment is picking up, so much so that employers say they cannot fill their vacancies because even highly-qualified candidates have the wrong skills for the jobs available. The current education systems, employers argue, teach yesterday’s skills to tomorrow’s graduates. Many are concerned that applicants lack “soft skills”, such as interpersonal, communication and analytical problem-solving abilities. This clearly indicates that jobs in growing sectors, such as health, education and other in-person services, require a different skill-set than those acquired by people who previously worked in sectors with declining employment, such as agriculture and manufacturing.

The changes in the digital era raise profound issues on how to adapt labour market policy and institutions, as well as decent flexible work arrangements and social security, in order to provide adequate security for workers while harnessing the potential of new ways of working to enhance opportunities. As the authors state: “the technology change is clearly skill–or better said–routine biased”. The paradox lies in the fact that we still have little understanding about how we perform many tasks, particularly those that require a human touch and soft skills. These tasks often require little effort for humans to accomplish, but still pose great difficulty for computer programmers to put into computer language.

We need to become as innovative in creating good jobs as we are in developing innovative products and services. What skills are needed for these non-routine tasks? What would it take for business, policy, and educational leaders to work together to make it happen? If our approach does not change, people will be denied the opportunities they need to develop the skills they require in the digital era.


is a sponsor of the OECD Forum 2016

©OECD Yearbook 2016

The future of work at the OECD Forum 2016

Innovation and the digital economy at the OECD Forum 2016

Other OECD Forum 2016 issues

OECD work in the Internet economy

OECD work on skills

OECD work on employment

OECD work on science and technology

van den Broek, Jacques (2015), "We must teach tomorrow's skills today", in OECD Yearbook 2015

OECD Yearbook 2016

Economic data


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Africa's cities at the forefront of progress: Africa is urbanising at a historically rapid pace coupled with an unprecedented demographic boom. By 2050, about 56% of Africans are expected to live in cities. This poses major policy challenges, but make no mistake: Africa’s cities and towns are engines of progress that, if harnessed correctly, can fuel the entire continent’s sustainable development.
  • “Nizip” refugee camp visit
    July 2016: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría visits the “Nizip” refugee camp, situated between Gaziantep and the Turkish-Syrian border, accompanied by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek. The camp accommodates a small number of the 2.75 million Syrians currently registered in Turkey, mostly outside the camps. In his tour of the camp, Mr Gurría visits a school, speaks with refugees and gives a short interview.
  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa.
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .

Most Popular Articles


What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2016