Technology-Skill Complementarity and Labor Displacement: Evidence from Linking Two Centuries of Patents with Occupations

Abstract

We construct new technology indicators using textual analysis of patent documents and occupation task descriptions that span of two centuries (1850–2010). At the industry level, improvements in technology are associated with higher labor productivity but a decline in the labor share. Exploiting variation in the extent certain technologies are related to specific occupations, we show that technological innovation has been largely associated with worse labor market outcomes—wages and employment—for incumbent workers in related occupations using a combination of public-use and confidential administrative data. Panel data on individual worker earnings reveal that less educated, older, and more highly-paid workers experience significantly greater declines in average earnings and earnings risk following related technological advances. We reconcile these facts with the standard view of technology-skill complementarity using a model that allows for skill displacement.

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