Photo of telephone operators at the switchboards, before 1910
Västerås, Sweden. The telephone operators at the switchboards, before 1910. Photo: Västmanlands läns museum

Technological change led to increased demands on occupational skills – but not always


Technological changes in labour markets during the time period of 1870 to 1950 was on average beneficial to workers, and the Swedish labour force became more skilled over time. However, in sectors where technological change should be most prominent, it moved in the opposite direction.

Photo of  Suvi Heikkuri
Suvi Heikkuri

Technological change and employment are interconnected. Suvi Heikkuri, Doctor in Economic History, brings forward a more nuanced picture of technological change on employment, skill composition, and wages during the industrialization in Sweden. ​The aim of the research is to broaden our understanding of how technological change influences work and the standard of living in a historical setting. 

“I was interested about the consequences of technological change. Today we see computers and AI as both an opportunity but also a threat to employment. I was interested in the historical developments and how labour markets reacted to earlier technologies. The topic is relevant because understanding historical developments may help us cope with the current and future challenges.”

Suvi Heikkuri shows that the Swedish labour force became more skilled over time, but in certain sectors, such as manufacturing, there was a shift from artisan and crafts occupations towards more standardized factory work, which is often considered “deskilling.”

Despite this, technological change during this time period was generally beneficial for workers, leading to greater employment and higher wages.

“I think we should understand the long-term consequences of technological change on employment and to society at large. We cannot predict how the future will be influenced by the current technologies, but understanding the historical processes can give us some ideas. It is also important to understand other factors in play, such as institutions and migration.”

The research community can benefit from the study as it brings up a broader view on the technological change. It offers a great opportunity to build upon and improve research on employment shifts and gender differences in labour markets. The society as a whole may benefit from the study in the same way it benefits from any economic history research: in understanding better the long-run development of the economy.

The increase in skills prominent among women

The increase in skills seemed to be quite prominent among women. They were leaving agriculture and domestic services, and found new jobs within the service sector, as teachers, nurses, office clerks, and telephone operators. In the same time period, the increase was not so noticeable among men, however this was due to the fact that men already have skilled occupations.

“The patterns I find for Swedish labour markets are in line with more recent evidence. Though I do not explore the gender differences in too much detail in the dissertation, the glimpses I do uncover are interesting”. 

Photo of telephone operators at the switchboards, before 1910.
Västerås, Sweden. The telephone operators at the switchboards, before 1910. Photo: Västmanlands läns museum

Future research plans

Suvi Heikkuri successfully defended her doctoral thesis Technological change, skills, and occupational structure in Sweden, 1870- 1950 , on 14 June 2024, at the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg. She will continue to conduct research in the field of Economic History, and she has two projects that she will be working within the near future.

“First, I am going to study human capital and skills in the pre-industrial era and how technical education developed in the guild system. And second, I am going to explore agricultural labour markets in the post-WWII era in connection to the introduction of technologies such as electricity, tractors, and milking machines.”