This is the question that authors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne from the University of Oxford ask, in a study published on the last month of September, where an examination of to what point current job positions are susceptible to being occupied by machines. To do so they have made a list of 702 positions about what the impacts expected by the computerisation in the processes of labour market of the USA are. The results found that 47% of the total of jobs in the USA are at risk.

An interesting anecdote that reminds us that this is not a new process and that is reiterated in this report is that of William Lee, who in 1589 first invented the stocking frame knitting machine hoping that this device would ease the work of knitters. In order to get the patent for his invention he went to London, where he rented a building, so that Queen Elizabeth I could see the machine. To his surprise, the Queen showed more concern for the machine’s impact on employment than for the new device and its advantages and rejected financing it.

This phenomena hits close to home, where, over the last few decades we have seen that technology has replaced a considerable number of job positions, from librarians to cashiers and phone operators.

Whilst we find ourselves immersed in a deep debate about the real causes of the extremely high rates of unemployment, already a number of researcher groups like Brynjolfsson and McAfee for example, have shown this automation as the cause.

On the other hand, authors like Goos and Manning mention that manual tasks in services are less susceptible to the replacement by the machine, for example activities related to the care of people.

All of this then reminds us that we are witnessing a polarization of the labour market.

In a recent report by the Think Tank Resolution Foundation and the London School of Economics entitled ‘A polarising crisis?‘ it is shown how, from the start of the crisis, highly qualified jobs and those requiring little training have grown, but those that fell in between have disappeared at a worrying speed.

According to the authors, the United Kingdom is moving towards a labour market that will only have two levels, a superior level on the labour scale, high management, consulting and highly qualified jobs, that have grown 16% from the beginning of the crisis, and a lower sector, services and catering, which has grown 17% in the same period. A reality that apparently we cannot escape from in a local context and that authors like Goos and Manning visualise in works such as ‘Lousy and Lovely Jobs’ (2007).

As we can see, it is a subject that has been proved and contrasted a time ago. What makes the Oxford University study different, is that although the automation replacing REPETITIVE tasks, both manual and cognitive, was evident (an example of this is the automation of administrative procedures within the public sector), it didn’t’ seem to be so clear in non-repetitive tasks that implied for example, legal drafting, trucks driving, medical diagnosis, persuasion and sales the possibility of automation. But in this study the authors defend the idea that some of these tasks soon will be automised. Due to the recent developments in the fields of engineering and artificial intelligence, new dimensions to understand the susceptibility of these jobs to computerisation.

Another relevant aspect that these authors point out is that since the implementation and generalised use of electricity, 20th century history has been a race between education and technology, making it necessary for people to keep training and continuing education throughout their lives: Life Long Learning. As computerisation goes into increasingly cognitive territories, there is a constant challenge for people.

To complete the study’s conclusions, this model predicts that the majority of work in transport and logistics, as well as administrative support and production tasks, are at risk, and surprisingly a substantial chunk of jobs in the service sector, the majority of which have been developed over the few last decades, are highly susceptible to computerisation. That is why low qualified workers will be employed in tasks where creativity and social intelligence are required, I.e., to compete in the race workers will have to gain creative and social competences as we already saw in the entry about ‘The 5 Minds of the Future‘ by Howard Gardner, and at NSF in the new workshops we work to secure our professional future.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck states that those who assure us that they have a recipe that guarantees full employment are untruthful, that in fact we are witnessing its end. Keynes predicted that by 2030 developed countries would have ‘enough’ (materially speaking) for people to be able to afford to work only a 15hr week and to redefine our vital priorities.

And it is true, technological progress allows us to produce increasingly goods using less intensive employment, the problem lies in that there is not a proper distribution of the amount of work people perform or in the enjoyment of these goods. See the entry ‘Work less for all to work‘.

However, I would like to end on a positive note, recalling a sentence by Kennedy: “If we have enough talent to invent new machines that destroy jobs, we also have the capacity to make people who have lost their jobs work again”.

Published by Laura Simon for ‘Construyendo capital humano’ on 17th February 2014