Between 1980 and 2012, the number of workplace tasks requiring social skills jumped 24%, those requiring math skills rose just 11%, and tasks requiring routine skills have steadily declined, according to Harvard Graduate School of Education associate professor David Deming. A faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Deming shows that “the labor market increasingly rewards social skills. Since 1980, jobs with high social skill requirements have experienced greater relative growth throughout the wage distribution. Moreover, employment and wage growth has been strongest in jobs that require high levels of both cognitive skill and social skill.”
The data show that social skill tasks grew by 24% from 1980 to 2012, compared to only about 11% for math-intensive tasks. While the latter has slightly declined since 2000, the importance of social skills has grown by about 2% since the turn of this century, as jobs characterized by routine work have continued to decline.
Deming stresses ‘the growing return to social skills is pervasive and not restricted to management and other top-paying jobs. Moreover, the strongest wage and employment growth has been in occupations that require high math and high social skills,” he points out in describing the research on his website.
Harvard Business Review Associate Editor Nicole Torres writes on HBR.org in her roundup of the research that people with both social and math skills tend to be winners in today's job market. But ultimately, having social skills allows a person to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances at work, which is a huge advantage.
The research paper explains three things about the growing importance of social skills, according to HBR.org: 1) social skills are valued in jobs across the entire wage distribution, 2) social skill and cognitive skill complement each other, and 3) jobs that require low levels of social skills are also likely to be routine jobs (filing clerks, factory jobs) at high risk of automation.
Deming notes that “the slow growth of high-paying jobs in the U.S. since 2000 and rapid advances in computer technology have sparked fears that human labor will eventually be rendered obsolete. Yet while computers perform cognitive tasks of rapidly increasing complexity, simple human interaction has proven difficult to automate.”
While it still pays to be good at math in today’s labor market, Torres writes, it’s often no longer enough. “The days of being able to plug away in isolation on a quantitative problem and be paid well for it are increasingly over,” Deming told Torres. “You need of have both types of skills.”
Deming, an Associate Professor of Education and Economics, has presented his research at universities throughout the country of economic and labor topics, including at Yale University and the University of Connecticut in recent years.