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Robots are coming: What jobs will still be around in 20 years?

A study by Oxford University examined 702 common occupations and found that some jobs – telemarketers, tax preparers and sports referees – are at more risk than others including recreational psychologists, dentists and physicians.

business Updated: Jun 27, 2017 21:07 IST
Repesentative photo showing industrial robots at work.
Repesentative photo showing industrial robots at work.

The robots are coming, the robots are coming!

Regular reports warn us that an automation apocalypse is nigh. In January, a McKinsey & Company study found that about 30% of tasks in 60% of occupations could be computerised and last year, the Bank of England’s chief economist said that 80m US and 15m UK jobs might be taken over by robots .

Of course, not all jobs are created equally. In 2013, a highly cited study by Oxford University academics called The Future of Employment examined 702 common occupations and found that some jobs – telemarketers, tax preparers and sports referees – are at more risk than others including recreational psychologists, dentists and physicians.

In the past, reports of the death of human jobs have often been greatly exaggerated, and technology has created a lot more jobs than it has wiped out. It’s called the “Luddite Fallacy”, in reference to the 19th century group of textile workers who smashed the new weaving machinery that made their skills redundant. Further, in the last 60 years automation has only eliminated one occupation: elevator operators .

While there have been optimistic predictions that new technology would increase prosperity and lower drudgery, very few of us are working the 15-hour work week that, in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted would be the norm for his grandkids. If anything, we’re working 15-hour days.

Today’s technological revolution is an entirely different beast from the industrial revolution. The pace of change is exponentially faster and far wider in scope. As Stanford University academic Jerry Kaplan writes in Humans Need Not Apply : today, automation is “blind to the colour of your collar”. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a factory worker, a financial advisor or a professional flute-player: automation is coming for you.

Before we get too deep into deep into doom and gloom, it’s worth stressing that automation isn’t synonymous with job losses. Speaking to me over the phone, Frey was quick to point out that his work doesn’t make any explicit predictions such as “47% of US jobs will disappear”. It simply says that these jobs are exposed to automation.

In other words, the jobs themselves won’t entirely vanish; rather, they will be redefined. Of course, as Frey concedes, “from the perspective of the worker there is not much of a difference” between work disappearing and being radically redefined. It’s likely they’ll lack the new skill sets required for the role and be out of a job anyway.

Professor Richard Susskind, author of The Future of the Professions and Tomorrow’s Lawyers , echoes this distinction. “What you’re going to see for a lot of jobs is a churn of different tasks,” he explains. “So a lawyer today doesn’t develop systems that offer advice, but the lawyer of 2025 will. They’ll still be called lawyers but they’ll be doing different things.”

So which professions are at greatest risk?

Martin Ford, futurist and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future , explains the jobs that are most at risk are those which “are on some level routine, repetitive and predictable”.

Telemarketing, for example, which is highly routine, has a 99% probability of automation. according to The Future of Employment report; you may have already noticed an increase in irritating robocalls. Tax preparation, which involves systematically processing large amounts of predictable data, also faces a 99% chance of being automated. Indeed, technology has already started doing our taxes: H&R Block, one of America’s largest tax preparation providers, is now using Watson , IBM’s artificial intelligence platform.

Robots will also take over the more repetitive tasks in professions such as law, with paralegals and legal assistants facing a 94% probability of having their jobs computerized. According to a recent report by Deloitte, more than 100,000 jobs in the legal sector have a high chance of being automated in the next 20 years.

Fast food cooks also face an 81% probability of having their jobs replaced by robots like Flippy, an AI-powered kitchen assistant which is already flipping burgers in a number of CaliBurger restaurants.

Ford, the futurist, classifies resilient jobs in three areas.

The first is jobs that involve “genuine creativity, such as being an artist, being a scientist, developing a new business strategy”. Ford notes: “For now, humans are still best at creativity but there’s a caveat there. I can’t guarantee you that in 20 years a computer won’t be the most creative entity on the planet. There are already computers that can paint original works of art. So, in 20 years who knows how far it’s going to go?”

The second area is occupations that involve building complex relationships with people: nurses, for example, or a business role that requires you to build close relationships with clients.

The third area is jobs that are highly unpredictable – for example, if you’re a plumber who is called out to emergencies in different locations.

You can see these parameters at play in the jobs The Future of Employment identifies as least at risk of automation, which include recreational therapists, first-line supervisors of mechanics, installers, repairers, occupational therapists and healthcare social workers.

While being in a creative or people-focused industry may keep your job safe for the next 10 years or so, it’s very hard to predict what will happen 20 years into the future. Indeed, Susskind stresses that we should be wary of downplaying just how much computers might change the working world.

She says she believes that the 2020s are going to be a decade not of unemployment, but of redeployment. Beyond that, however, the picture is far less clear: “I don’t think anyone can do long-term career planning with any confidence.” As Susskind notes, “we make assumptions about the indispensability of human beings”, but machines are already doing things we thought only humans might be able to. They’re composing original music , for example, and beating professional players at complex board games with creative moves.

They’re even helping us with our relationships with God. While the clergy only has a 0.81% probability of automation, according to data from The Future of Jobs, Susskind believes even algorithms might one day replace the ordained. As he notes, there are already apps like Confession which offer “drop-down menus for tracking sin”.

While we’ve been doing a lot of robot-bashing, it should be noted that automation isn’t the only phenomenon having an impact on the job market. Saadia Zahidi , head of the education, gender and work system initiative at the World Economic Forum (WEF), says that we “shouldn’t forget that there are other drivers of change”.

A 2016 WEF report identified such drivers as climate change, the rise of the middle class in many emerging markets, aging populations in certain parts of Europe and East Asia, and the changing aspirations of women as factors that will have significant impacts on jobs. “It’s really the coming together of these various drivers of change that then leads to disruptions in the labor market,” Zahidi notes.

The report warns that we’re going to see significant ramifications from automation very soon. Zahidi explains: “The next three years will be a period of flux and a period of relatively higher losses than gains. This is not meant to be alarmist in the sense that there will be heavy job losses. But if we do nothing then this will be where we end up.”

Automation may also exacerbate gender inequality, Zahidi says. Women don’t make up a large proportion of people who are going into science, technology, engineering and math (Stem) and IT fields, which are likely to be the areas in which jobs will grow. On the other hand, Zahidi notes, there do tend to be more women in care-related professions, such as healthcare and education, which are at a lower risk of automation.

In the long run, women may actually end up faring better from technological change. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that a higher proportion of male than female jobs are at risk of automation, especially those of men with lower levels of education.

Related: Why robots should be taxed if they take people’s jobs | Robert Shiller

Justin Tobin, founder of the innovation consultancy DDG, says he believes: “More and more independent thinkers are realizing that when being an employee is the equivalent to putting all your money into one stock – a better strategy is to diversify your portfolio. So you’re seeing a lot more people looking to diversify their career.”

Faith Popcorn, a futurist, echoes the idea that we will all have to become as agile as possible and “have many forms of talent and work that you can provide the economy”.

In the future, she says, we’ll all have seven or eight jobs, with the average adult working for a number of companies simultaneously rather than working for one big corporation.

“We’re in the midst of this huge sweeping change that is going to impact all levels of society,” Popcorn warns.

Predicting the future is Popcorn’s livelihood, and she’s made herself a bit of a legend over the years doing so, but even she seems a little unsettled by the pace of change today. As she tells me with a world-weary sigh, it “just makes you want to have some more tequila”.

Published in arrangement with Guardian.com