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Occupational change

Occupational change describes how job structures are changing across occupations, sectors, and the wage distribution. The JRC monitors whether the occupational structures of EU countries and regions are upgrading, downgrading, or polarising.

Jobs are structured across sectors, occupations, and along the wage distribution, reflecting patterns of specialisation and division of labour across markets and firms.This occupational structure is changing globally, because of technological change, labour market institutions and demographic trends.  

Monitoring the changes in occupational structure is crucial to promote a fair and sustainable economy. 

The JRC researches the recent evolution of the occupational structure in EU countries, regions, and beyond terms of trends in wages and wage inequality, job quality dynamics, the nature of economic growth, changes in the tasks that workers do and territorial disparities across countries and regions. 

Change in occupational structure: polarisation or upgrading?

The JRC monitors the changes in the occupation structure of EU countries and regions. 
On aggregate, these changes can follow three broad patterns: 

  • job upgrading: employment growth concentrated in high-paid jobs; 
  • job polarisation: employment growth more intense in both low and high-paid jobs, while mid-paid jobs decrease or remain stagnant; 
  • job downgrading: employment growth concentrated in low-paid jobs. 

While job polarisation has been widely reported in the US, evidence indicates that the most common trend over the last decades in the EU, as well as in many non-EU countries, is occupational upgrading. That is, a generalised move towards better-paid jobs, promoted mainly by the intensive growth of professional occupations. In general, evidence from Europe and other countries cautions that the patterns of occupational change can vary across periods, countries, and regions, as reported in a recent study on Global Shifts in the Employment Structure, a study on Employment shifts in Europe from 1997 to 2021, in the European Jobs Monitor 2019 and a study on regional heterogeneity in occupational change

JRC-ILO project on occupational change at the global level

The JRC is conducting a research project on “Global Shifts in the Employment Structure” within the project “Building partnership on the Future of Work” in cooperation with the International Labour Organisation (ILO)  (also covered in an ILO podcast). This project builds on methodology co-developed at the JRC to analyse changing occupational structures to non-EU countries. The project provides much-needed evidence on a global scale, allowing European analysts and policy-makers to benchmark the findings from EU Member States with countries that had not yet been studied in the literature.  

This project has already produced evidence on occupational change in eight European countriesBrazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico, U.S., Canada, RussiaSouth Korea and India. A summary of the key findings from all country-specific studies is available in the report 'Global Shifts in the Employment Structure.

Occupational and sociodemographic changes

This line of research explores the main patterns of occupational change and their underlying drivers. It finds that, despite recent progress, gender gaps remain an important feature of EU labour markets. This underscores the importance of addressing gender disparities and prioritizing gender equality to establish a society that is more inclusive and prosperous for everyone. 

Evidence from the European Jobs Monitor 2021 (a joint report by the JRC and Eurofound) shows European women are still less active on the labour market than men, receive lower wages, face occupational segregation and carry the larger share of the care burden of dependent household members.  

The increase in the female labour market participation has been associated with a certain overall polarisation or even "degradation" in occupational terms over the last 25 years. Moreover, although educational upgrading was particularly relevant for females, occupational returns to education have declined more for women than men.  

The literature has mostly dwelled on the role technical and organisational change, trade, shifts in demand, or institutions, but changes in the structure of labour supply are also relevant: occupational and demographic structures shape one another. Over the last decades, the key socio-demographic trends have been the ageing of the working age population, an increasing female workforce and a still-significant educational upgrading, especially among women.  

European Jobs Monitor

Some of the research on occupational change has been carried out in collaboration with Eurofound, in the context of the European Jobs Monitor, an EU observatory that monitors employment change and has been active for more than a decade. 

Some recent key EJM publications include:  


Torrejon Perez, S., Fernandez Macias, E. and Hurley, J., Global Shifts in the Employment Structure, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2024, JRC136358.

Maurizio, R., Monsalvo, A.P., Catania, S. and Martínez, S., Employment shifts and the debate on job polarization in Latin America: the cases of Argentina, Chile and Mexico, European Commission, 2023, JRC134733.

Willcox, M. and Feor, B., Structural Changes in Canadian Employment from 1997 to 2022, JRC Working Papers on Labour, Education and Technology 2023/08, European Commission, Seville, 2023, JRC134714.

Dwyer, R. E., Job Polarization in the United States in the 21st Century: Studying Shifts in Employment Structures Using Occupations and Sectors, JRC Working Papers on Labour, Education and Technology 2023/07, European Commission, Seville, 2023, JRC132815.

Sarkar, S. and Torrejon Perez, S., Structural changes in the employment structure of India in 2012-2020: job upgrading or polarization - JRC Working Papers Series on Labour, Education and Technology 2023/06, European Commission, 2023, JRC134322.

Torrejón Pérez, S., Hurley, J., Fernández-Macías, E., Staffa E., Employment shifts in Europe from 1997 to 2021: from job upgrading to polarisation, JRC Working Papers on Labour, Education and Technology 2023/05, European Commission, Seville, 2023, JRC132678.  

Rodrigues-Silveira, R, Structural Changes in Brazilian Employment (2002- 2021), JRC Working Papers on Labour, Education and Technology 2023/01, European Commission, Seville, 2023, JRC132269. 

Gimpleson, V, and Kapeliushnikov, R. Shifts in the Composition of Jobs: The Case of Russia (2000- 2019), JRC Working Papers on Labour, Education and Technology 2023/03, European Commission, Seville, 2023, JRC132708.  

Hong, M, Structural Changes in South Korea Employment (2000–2021), JRC Working Papers on Labour, Education and Technology 2023/02, European Commission, Seville, 2023, JRC132566.  

Vera-Toscano, E., Fana, M. and Fernández-Macías, E., Regional heterogeneity in occupational change: Using Census data to investigate employment polarisation and upgrading at NUTS-3 level, European Commission, Seville, 2022, JRC130147.  

Torrejón Pérez, S. and González Vázquez, I. (2021), The Impact of Technology on the Present and the Future of Work and Skills, Santana, M. and Valle-Cabrera, R. (Ed.) New Directions in the Future of Work, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 119-141.  

Eurofound and European Commission Joint Research Centre (2021), European Jobs Monitor 2021: Gender gaps and the employment structure, European Jobs Monitor series, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.  

Eurofound and European Commission Joint Research Centre (2019), European Jobs Monitor 2019: Shifts in the employment structure at regional level, European Jobs Monitor series, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.  

Bisello et al., How computerisation is transforming jobs: Evidence from Eurofound's European Working Conditions Survey, Seville: European Commission, 2019, JRC117167.  

Eurofound (2017), Occupational change and wage inequality: European Jobs Monitor 2017, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.  

Eurofound (2016), What do Europeans do at work? A task-based analysis: European Jobs Monitor 2016, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.


JRC-P21-EDU-SKILLS-EMPLatec [dot] europa [dot] eu (JRC-P21-EDU-SKILLS-EMPL[at]ec[dot]europa[dot]eu) 

To find out more about the JRC's work on similar topics, explore the related JRC portfolios: