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Mark Williams

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Field of work determines pay, and increasingly so

August 27, 2018

Sociologists have traditionally considered occupation—field of work—a central factor in differentiating people’s life chances. This post summarizes new research reinvigorating sociology’s preoccupation with occupation. It suggests that field of work is a critical factor determining pay, and increasingly so, and that this is the case because different occupations involve different tasks.

Occupational tasks and wages

For a number of years now, I have been studying how occupation relates to pay in the United Kingdom. In this research, I have found that occupations have become a stronger predictor of earnings since the 1970s such that occupations explain the majority of wage inequality and its growth in the United Kingdom. Moreover, this trend has shown no sign of reversal even with the wage stagnation of the last decade.

But how might we explain the connection between field of work and pay, and why the connection might be evolving? An exciting new approach examines the task content of occupations.

At the heart of this idea is that pay is attached to particular types of tasks: Different tasks command different rates of pay in the labor market. Since tasks are differentially bundled together across occupations, some occupations pay more than others.

Since the value of tasks is not constant, this approach might also explain why some occupations’ wages rise faster than others. For instance, sociologists Liu and Grusky examined the growth in wage inequality in the United States and found that occupational tasks explain most of the rise in between-occupation inequality there.

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