Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Surveying the "Post-Industrial" Landscape: Information Technologies and Labour Market Polarization in Canada [*]

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Surveying the "Post-Industrial" Landscape: Information Technologies and Labour Market Polarization in Canada [*]

Article excerpt

Dans le cours des debats recents concernant l'effet des technologies nouvelles sur le travail, une question touche la polarisation des [less than][less than]bons[greater than][greater than] et des [less than][less than]mauvais[greater than][greater than] emplois dans l'economie postindustrielle. Les competences et les gains figurent au centre des preoccupations. A partir de donnees tirees de l'Enquete sociale generale de 1994, nous avons examine l'utilisation de l'informatique au Canada, et nous avons analyse l'incidence de cet usage sur les competences et les gains lies aux emplois. Nos conclusions n'appuient pas une explication du phenomene de la polarisation fondee sur la technologie dans le marche du travail. Les caracteristiques des travailleurs et les modalites professionnelles sont beaucoup plus importantes, bien qu'il existe des differences rattachees aux competences en informatique dans des regroupements semblables de professions.

A key issue in recent debates over the impact of new technologies on work is the polarization of "good" and "bad" jobs within the "postindustrial" economy. Two dimensions--skill and earnings--have been of central concern. Drawing on the 1994 General Social Survey, we examine computer use in Canada, and analyze its impact on job earnings and skill. Our findings do not support a technology-based explanation of polarization within the labour market as a whole. Instead, worker characteristics and occupational conditions are far more important, although there is some evidence of computer-related skill differences within similar groupings of occupations.

IN MUCH THE SAME WAY that information technologies have grown in complexity over the last two decades, so too has the debate over their consequences for the nature and quality of work in industrialized societies. Whereas in the 1970s attention centred on the competing images of Bell's (1973) "post-industrial" society of skilled, autonomous workers and Braverman's (1974) deskilled and degraded proletarians, in the 1990s the debate has become considerably more nuanced and complex (Smith, 1994). One of the key issues to emerge concerns the extent to which workplace technologies have fuelled a polarization between "good" and "bad" jobs in industrialized economies (Szafran, 1996: 61-62). Unlike earlier predictions of either a uniform upgrading (Bell, 1973) or degrading (Braverman, 1974) of work, the polarization thesis suggests that far more complex changes are occurring as new technologies become deeply embedded within workplaces and across national economies.

Questions about polarization are of critical importance for understanding the changing nature and basis of inequalities within labour markets and industrialized societies. Yet, to date, evidence on the link between polarization and technological change is far from conclusive. While several studies have delved into the issue of skill polarization in the 1980s (ECC, 1991; Myles, 1988), the rapid changes that have occurred in information technologies and work reorganization in the 1990s mean that many of these findings are now dated (Crompton et al., 1996: 6). Recent changes are not yet documented, and it remains unclear whether polarization is a short-term response to technological adjustment or a more permanent feature of the so-called information economy (Bellin and Miller, 1990: 180). Perhaps most importantly, many existing studies have only been able to infer, rather than demonstrate, the actual link between job polarization and the use of information technologies in the workplace. Questions thus remain ab out the relationship between information technologies and the polarization of job skills and earnings, as well as the current industrial and occupational coordinates of "good" and "bad" jobs, and the characteristics of workers who occupy them.

Our purpose in this paper is to contribute to sociological debate on this issue. We do so by undertaking a broad examination of the implications of information technology use for labour market polarization, using Canada as a case study. …

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