Is Your Job About To Disappear?: QuickTake

By Mark Whitehouse, Mira Rojanasakul and Cedric Sam

Is Your Job At Risk? 2

In the U.K., the Bank of England estimates that about 15 million mostly service jobs—half the country’s total—could succumb to automation and widen the gap between rich and poor. A McKinsey Global Institute studyof the labor force in 46 countries found that less than 5 percent of occupations could be fully automated using today’s technology, but almost a third of tasks involved in 60 percent of occupations could be.
There’s ample room for skepticism. U.S. productivity growth has been slow, exactly the opposite of what one would expect if robots were taking over. Also, advances in artificial intelligence could end up focusing mostly on specific tasks rather than entire jobs, augmenting rather than replacing humans. That said, history teaches us that it’s hard to predict how technological change will unfold. Even if, as some economists predict, new jobs and industries eventually replace those being automated, large portions of the global workforce may need retraining. And if work becomes a luxury, widespread joblessness and greater inequality could redefine the challenge of ensuring a social safety net.

Thirteen years ago, two prominent U.S. economists wrote that driverless cars couldn’t execute a left turn against oncoming traffic because too many factors were involved. Six years later, Google proved it could make fully autonomous cars, threatening the livelihoods of millions of truck and taxi drivers. Throughout much of the developed world, gainful employment is seen as almost a fundamental right. But what if, in the not-too-distant future, there won’t be enough jobs to go around? That’s what some economists think will happen as robots and artificial intelligence increasingly become capable of performing human tasks. Of course, past technological upheavals created more jobs than they destroyed. But some labor experts argue that this time could be different: Technology is replacing human brains as well as brawn.

When politicians talk about jobs, they tend to focus on iconic, goods-producing industries, such as mining, steel production and auto making, that have traditionally been the hardest hit by global competition and technological progress. Lately, though, the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. pales in comparison to the much larger losses in parts of the services sector.
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Reference Shelf

  • This December 2016 report from the Barack Obama administration predicts which occupations might go extinct.
  • McKinsey Global Institute estimates that about half of all the activities people are paid to do could be automated by 2055.
  • A speech by the Bank of England’s chief economist looks at the public-policy implications of rising job losses from automation.
  • A labor group estimates that more than half of workers in Southeast Asia are at high risk of losing their jobs, only most are in the manufacturing sector.
  • A QuickTake on artificial intelligence and other QuickTake articles are available here.