Digit Debates: How does labour market digitalization affect social mobility?

16 June 2021



Children tend to inherit their parents’ social class through the types of jobs they get. However, digital technologies are now transforming the way labour markets work. Candidates are increasingly screened using algorithmic decision making. Skills are validated with online tests and customer feedback ratings. Workplace communications take place over digital media.

Could these transformations be undermining the advantages that have accrued to workers with posh accents, family connections, and expensively acquired educational qualifications? We examined this question with survey data from the online (remote) platform economy, a labour market segment in which these digital transformations have progressed furthest.

The results reveal that online platform workers come largely from privileged class backgrounds. Class also influences (via education) what types of online occupations workers do, from professional services to data entry. However, class background has surprisingly little influence on job quality, which is instead shaped by individual digital metrics such as feedback ratings. These findings cannot be fully reconciled with theories of a shift towards meritocracy nor with theories of a persisting influence of class origins. Instead, labour market digitalization may be decoupling inherited occupation from job quality.


Vili Lehdonvirta is Professor of Economic Sociology and Digital Social Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. He is currently the principal investigator of iLabour, a major research project on online freelancing and the gig economy, funded by the European Research Council.  Lehdonvirta’s research examines how digital technologies are used to transform the way economic activities are organized in society, and with what implications to workers, consumers, businesses, and policy. His recent advisory appointments include the European Commission’s Expert Group on the Online Platform Economy and the European Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on Digital Transformation and EU Labour Markets.

Related reading

Martindale, N., and Lehdonvirta, V. ‘Can labour market digitalization increase social mobility? Evidence from a European survey of online platform workers