Study Warns: Half of Our Jobs Will Disappear in the Next 25 YearsFeb 1, 2017
Although unemployment sounds like an inherently negative concept, an ideal, functioning government has to maintain a small percentage of unemployed workers at all times. The U.S. Federal Reserve estimates that the lowest sustainable level of unemployment is somewhere around 4.5 to 5.0 percent. However, a 2013 study from researchers at Oxford University suggests that there’s a bleaker future than that ahead, as improvements in technology will lead to the destruction of 47% of all jobs that currently exist.
As early as 1933, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a negative relationship between technological advancement and rising unemployment, with increasingly efficient artificial labor overtaking the need for human workers. Despite the apparent improvements to human civilization that mechanization has since brought, Keynes foresaw a future in which people would have to pay the true cost for machines’ increased role in everyday life. Now, research suggests that he was, unfortunately, right.
Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, representing the Oxford Martin School and the Department of Engineering Science, have come to a dire conclusion: by 2043, 47% of jobs will have been lost to “computerization.” As artificial labor and intelligence continue to improve, comparatively inefficient human workers will no longer be the first choice to fill certain roles. As a result, this historically unprecedented jump in human redundancy and unemployment will effectively destroy the middle class as we know it.
While mechanization has taken an obvious toll on blue-collar jobs and hourly employment, as demonstrated by both auto factory assembly lines and grocery store self-checkout kiosks, there is an even greater variety of jobs at risk. Frey and Osborne analyzed 702 distinct occupations for their susceptibility to tech-driven obsoletion, together accounting for 97% of American employment, from engineers to education providers to farming, fishing, and forestry professionals. By their analysis, the industries most susceptible to computerization are transportation, logistics, office administration, production, and service. Conversely, the occupations most likely to survive mechanization are those that rely on an understanding of fine arts, originality, negotiation, persuasion, and social perceptiveness – in other words, the qualities that make us human.
As the supply of autonomous, automated options increases, the demand for more fallible human workers will decrease. In contrast – and in something of an upside – the dwindling need for humans to carry out routine tasks now better suited to machines has encouraged an increase in workers seeking further education. With computers not yet able to mimic more abstract higher-level thinking, humans remain in great demand for work that requires such cognitive capabilities.
Art Bilger, founder of the nonprofit organization Working Nation, suggests that the best preparation for the impending rise in displaced workers is education: teaching the skills that humans need and computers cannot provide. By tapping into people’s “creative and social intelligence” while providing them with the solid skills training necessary to employ that intelligence in the workplace, Bilger hopes the workforce will be able to adapt. However, a migration to “cognitive jobs” is not feasible for all workers, leaving a significant sector of the population without obvious recourse to gainful employment.
Impossible as it is to slow the march of progress, it seems that an alternative way of viewing employment will soon be necessary, at least for those 47% of workers soon to be displaced from their livelihoods. Such widespread unemployment might finally inspire the implementation of a universal basic income, such as in the program being tested in Finland, affording citizens at least a minimal allocation of resources to ensure their survival. More optimistically, the unshackling of workers from the completion of routine tasks may even free them to pursue other means of filling their time, spurring a revolution in artistic and scientific progress. It may even be the start of another Renaissance.