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Sci Adv. 2019 Dec 18;5(12):eaax3370. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aax3370. eCollection 2019 Dec.

The value of complementary co-workers.

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Growth Lab, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
Department of Human Geography, Faculty of Social Science, Lund University, Lund, Sweden. Email:


As individuals specialize in specific knowledge areas, a society's know-how becomes distributed across different workers. To use this distributed know-how, workers must be coordinated into teams that, collectively, can cover a wide range of expertise. This paper studies the interdependencies among co-workers that result from this process in a population-wide dataset covering educational specializations of millions of workers and their co-workers in Sweden over a 10-year period. The analysis shows that the value of what a person knows depends on whom that person works with. Whereas having co-workers with qualifications similar to one's own is costly, having co-workers with complementary qualifications is beneficial. This co-worker complementarity increases over a worker's career and offers a unifying framework to explain seemingly disparate observations, answering questions such as "Why do returns to education differ so widely?" "Why do workers earn higher wages in large establishments?" "Why are wages so high in large cities?"

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