Report

Skills, Age and Tasks in Europe – The most routine occupations aged faster, while the least routine jobs slower than the average

There are important intergenerational differences behind aggregate shifts away from manual jobs towards cognitive jobs, and away from routine work towards non-routine work. We study these age and cohort patterns in tasks and skills in European countries. Changes in the task composition were happening much faster among workers born in the 1970s and 1980s than among those born before 1970. The most routine occupations aged faster, while the least routine jobs slower than the average. Changes in the cohort-specific growth in the intensity of non-routine cognitive tasks and in the decline of the intensity of manual tasks can be attributed to changes in workforce upgrading – the rise in tertiary attainment was embodied in younger cohorts. By the 2010s, older workers across Europe were significantly less likely to be highly proficient in various skills, and significantly more likely to have low proficiency. These effects were visible among workers as young as 45 years, and were the most pronounced in the case of problems solving skills.


The evolution of task content intensities within particular age groups was quite similar among European countries. At the same time, within particular countries young, prime-aged and older workers recorded different patterns of task content changes. Age was a crucial dimension of changes in the task contents.

In the EU15, the shift away from manual tasks and routine cognitive tasks, and towards non-routine cognitive tasks, was the most pronounced among workers between the ages of 25 and 44. The changes among younger (15-24) and older (45-59) workers were less noticeable. However, the EU South countries differed from the other sub-regions in that regard – the changes of task content intensities were the largest among workers aged 15-29, and less pronounced among workers aged 30-49. The 60-64 group has also recorded substantial changes, but in the EU15 Continental and EU15 South countries these changes were not entirely consistent with the overall trends (discussed in the background paper 1 and not repeated here). In particular, the intensity of routine cognitive tasks increased among workers aged 60-64 in these regions. This was likely related to prolonging working lives – as the labour force participation rate of older workers increased, more workers in routine cognitive jobs remained in employment.

In the NMS countries, the set of age groups recording the most pronounced changes was more narrow – it included workers between the ages of 25 and 39. The routine cognitive tasks were flat among prime-aged workers but they increased among workers aged 55-64, except for the NMS North countries where the intensity of routine cognitive tasks across among all age groups. In the NMS Continental countries, the intensity of manual tasks increased among older workers. This apparent puzzle can be explained by self- selection to retirement. In the late 1990s, working after the age of 60 was rare in these countries. These were mainly the high-skilled workers who kept working after the age of 60. As the participation rate of older workers and the age of exiting the labour force have both increased, a more balanced sample of workers have remained in employment – thus, the intensity of manual tasks among older workers increased.

The biggest difference between EU-15 and NMS with respect to age dimension of tasks changes is the evolution of routine cognitive tasks. While for EU-15 countries we observe an increase of intensity of these tasks only for people aged 15-24 and 50-64, and a steep fall for other age groups, in NMS countries the growth of routine cognitive tasks was more common. This was especially the case in NMS North region, where routine cognitive tasks have been increasing for each age groups we consider. NMS South countries were likewise characterised by a more prevalent growth of routine cognitive tasks which increased their intensity among workers aged 15-24, and 50-64. In NMS Continental countries routine cognitive tasks plummeted for the youngest workers, slightly declined for workers aged 20-49, and increased for people aged 50-64.

Finally, the youngest workers, aged 15-19, experienced a drop in the intensity of non-routine cognitive tasks in all regions exception for the EU-15 South. However, the intensity of these tasks among the youngest workers was very low even in the late 1990s and its decline can be attributed to the rising age of labour market entry of tertiary educated workers.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Age, tasks and skills in European labour markets. Background paper for the world bank report “Growing United: Upgrading Europe’s Convergence Machine” – IBS – Instytut Badań Strukturalnych

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