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HKS Authors

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Academic Dean
Isabelle and Scott Black Professor of Political Economy, HKS; Professor of Education and Economics, HGSE


Machines increasingly replace people in routine job tasks. The remaining tasks require workers to make open-ended decisions and to have “soft” skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability. This paper documents growing demand for decision-making and explores the consequences for life-cycle earnings. Career earnings growth in the U.S. more than doubled between 1960 and 2017, and the age of peak earnings increased from the late 30s to the mid-50s. I show that a substantial share of this shift is explained by increased employment in decision-intensive occupations, which have longer and more gradual periods of earnings growth. To understand these patterns, I develop a model that nests decision-making in a standard human capital framework. Workers predict the output of uncertain, context-dependent actions. Experience reduces prediction error, improving a worker’s ability to adapt using data from similar decisions they have made in the past. Experience takes longer to accumulate in high variance, non-routine jobs. I test the predictions of the model using data from the three waves of the NLS. Life-cycle wage growth in decision-intensive occupations has increased over time, and it has increased relatively more for highly-skilled workers.


Deming, David. "The Growing Importance of Decision-Making on the Job." NBER Working Paper Series, April 2021.