For decades, students and job seekers have chased an increasingly sophisticated set of skills to bolster their prospects for employment. But research indicates that more and more, a strong career path isn’t simply a product of complicated technical know-how, but of something much more elementary: the ability to work well with others.
Analyzing data from the US Census, the American Community Survey, and the US Department of Labor, David J. Deming of Harvard finds that social skills, as opposed to cognitive ones, are increasingly valued in the American job market. From 1980 to 2012, Deming says, job growth has been weak among occupations that don’t require a high level of social skills, even when they involve a high level of math skills. Labor inputs for tasks that demand social skills, by contrast, are up 24 percent. Deming suggests the reason is that skills such as negotiation, coordination, persuasion, and perceptiveness play an important role in nonroutine—and hence, difficult to automate—occupations.
Deming points out that automation tends to “crowd out” workers in positions with heavily routine functions, which he defines as those that either already rely on a large measure of automation or involve performing the same mental or physical activity over and over. Though the limits of computing power have historically protected routine jobs that require a certain level of cognitive skill, job growth has slowed or disappeared for routine tasks of increasingly high-skill functions—for instance, airline pilots, financial managers, and software developers all experienced slow or negative growth from 2000 to 2012. It’s possible that as technology improves, automation is nibbling away at increasingly difficult jobs, according to Deming.
But occupations that demand social skills, such as lawyers and editors, are less likely to be routinized, and in these positions humans still have an edge on computers. Social skills, Deming says, act as a kind of “social anti-gravity,” lubricants that make it easier to exchange tasks in a way that plays to each person’s respective strengths, increasing overall productivity. The greater the social-skill level of each coworker, the lower the trade cost of sharing tasks, and the more efficiently those tasks are shared.
“Human interaction in the workplace involves team production, with workers playing off of each other’s strengths and adapting flexibly to changing circumstances,” Deming writes. “Such non-routine interaction is at the heart of the human advantage over machines.”
The job data indicate that social and cognitive skills are often complementary assets; for instance, jobs requiring both high math skills and high social skills have fared the best since 1980. But even low-math, high-social occupations have grown.
Deming finds that employment has grown for social-skill-dependent jobs at all wage levels, but the trend has benefited one demographic in particular: women, who, Deming notes, “consistently score higher on tests of emotional and social intelligence.” Since 1980, the distribution of routine tasks among women has gone down significantly in comparison to nonroutine tasks, a trend not found among men.