Research

Yes, White Men’s Career Paths are Different

White men have the most success over the course of their lives in holding on to well-paying jobs that require high-level analytical abilities and interpersonal skills, a new study finds.

They have so much success that they often remain in this challenging non-routine work – astronomer, community college instructor, and analyst are examples – well into their 60s and even 70s. This isn’t the case for everyone else.

White women and also Asian-American men and women with college degrees also frequently start their careers in positions with demands that are similar to white men. But after they pass their prime working years, this type of work declines, in sharp contrast to white men’s career paths, the researchers found.

For example, the intensity of white women’s nonroutine cognitive work, as well as nonroutine interpersonal jobs like coach or education administrator, peaks around age 40 and then starts declining. At the same time, the intensity of the women’s routine cognitive tasks increase. This trend, which continues until they retire, might happen as older women are sidelined into less challenging office work.

The study, based on occupational data and a couple of long-running surveys of workers, accomplished two things. First, the researchers followed changes since 2004 in the nature of the overall job market. The intensity of the nonroutine tasks required to do a job, rated on a scale from low to high, has declined. But jobs requiring routine tasks have gained ground.

This doesn’t seem to jibe with well-known past research showing that people who do routine work are disproportionately being replaced by robots. But perhaps the prevalence of computers and artificial intelligence in the jobs that remain have increased routinization in many occupations. Reservation and ticket agents, telephone call center representatives, and medical transcriptionists are very high-intensity routine cognitive jobs.

The second part of the analysis showed that the evolution in job demands progresses very differently for various workers as they age and approach retirement.

The focus for Black and Hispanic men is on physical labor. The demands on all men doing manual jobs lessen over time as they lose physical strength. But the racial differences are clear.

Throughout their careers, Black and Hispanic men do the most highly routinized work requiring strenuous physical activity. For example, Hispanic men are pervasive in the roofing industry. The white men who start out at this level of activity are far less likely to maintain it. They tend to migrate into less physically demanding, less routine work. The intensity of the physical work done by Black and Hispanic men’ doesn’t change much as they age.

The backdrop for this study is increasing inequality in the United States. The researchers have provided a new window on this inequality – the tasks people do, which determine how much they earn over the course of their careers.

To read this study, authored by Samuel Cole, Zachary Cowell, Richard Alan Seals Jr., and John Nunley, see “The Changing Task Content of Jobs for Older Workers in the United States.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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