By 2030, Nearly Half Of U.S. Jobs Could Be Replaced By Machines

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, modified by Curiousmatic. 

A report (pdf) by Oxford researchers showed that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to computerization within the next 20 years. Should you be robot-proofing your career?

Advances in technology have long been changing the way jobs get done. As machines become integrated in most fields of work, we get closer by the day to a futuristic Jetsons lifestyle complete with robo-maids.

In many cases, computers are already capable of doing the job themselves — and not just in the form of roombas.

We’ve seen it with factory, bookkeeping, and telephone operator jobs already, and a report from Oxford University concludes that even more careers in America will become automated as fields such as robotics and AI grow.

What determines if a job is suitable for computerization?

Oxford researchers analyzed 702 detailed occupations in the U.S. and found that almost half (47 percent, to be exact) were at high risk for computerization in the relatively near future — probably within the next decade or two.

Jobs were classified as low-risk, medium-risk, and high-risk, depending on several key factors, which helped determine occupations’ likelihood for computerization. These factors are:

  • Perception and manipulation tasks: level of perception needed to perform un-routine tasks, handle irregular objects, and account for changing variables (for example, a maid, jewelry maker, or surgeon)

  • Creative intelligence tasks: level at which occupations require conceptualization and the ability to come up with novel and valuable ideas (for example, a chef, author, or designer)

  • Social intelligence tasks: level at which jobs require social skills such as negotiations, persuasion and care (for example, PR specialist, lawyer, or nurse)

So while a bus driver ranks low on all factors because the job requires mostly driving, an engineer, who ranks high on perception, social, and creative levels, isn’t going to be replaced anytime soon.

Which jobs are at the highest risk?

Using the aforementioned criteria, the report theorized that jobs in transportation, logistics, office/administrative support, and labour production would be the bulk of a first wave of computerization, made feasible by technological achievements in big data and automation.

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The report also saw vulnerability in low-level service jobs, a field that has seen a large amount of growth in past years.

Sales occupations such as cashiers, clerks, and telemarketers are also considered to be at high risk along with jobs in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry.

A polarized labor market

The 20th century’s computer revolution saw what economists refer to as a hollowing out of middle-income manufacturing and production jobs, while simultaneously having built strength in high-skill and low-skill occupations.

As already there is a perceived polarization in the job market, these new findings are troubling in their implication that the next wave of computerization will substitute mainly low-income, low-skill jobs.

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The possibility of lessening or eliminating lower-income service jobs when middle-income jobs are already weakened is disturbing, especially as this industry continues to be a space of job growth.

Low-risk jobs lie mostly in the realm of social and creative intelligence, meaning that most management, business, finance, education, healthcare, fine arts, and media jobs are unlikely to be replaced any time soon.

As the Atlantic aptly puts it, “Machines are better at rules and routines; people are better at directing and diagnosing,” but only for now.

What will happen?

The report concludes that in order to keep up with advancing technologies, workers should focus on developing creative and social skills — areas in which computers are at much less risk of catching up to humans.

Still, robotic and AI advances are difficult to predict, and as jobs become gradually automated it is probable that new jobs will crop up surrounding these dynamic fields.

Hopefully, educators will jump on this trend to offer skills likely to be in demand down the road by emphasizing the innovative and empathetic flexibility that only humans have, and demonstrating how it can compliment an increasingly high-tech world.

Predictions aside, the future is still a mystery — and as Slate points out, if there is a demand for human workers despite robot capability, jobs for humans are also likely to stick around.

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Jennifer Markert