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Robots Will Devour Jobs More Slowly Than You Think

An automated workforce is inevitable, but humans may labor alongside machines for the foreseeable future.
January 13, 2017

We know that automation is affecting the labor market, but forecasts differ on how swift and dramatic the future impact will be. A new report now suggests things may happen more slowly than some have predicted.

Last month, it was reported that Foxconn plans to replace almost every human worker in some of its manufacturing plants with a robot. Perhaps more worrying for office workers was the news that a Japanese insurance firm was sacking over 30 staff because artificial intelligence could calculate payouts just as well as humans. No wonder that two-thirds of Americans believe that robots will soon take on the majority of work currently performed by people.

But according to a study on automation, employment, and productivity published by McKinsey Global Institute, the research division of the consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, the pace of automation’s impact on the labor force may be a little less fierce than expected. And, it reckons, the economy has more to gain by humans working alongside robots for the foreseeable future.

The consultancy’s analysis divides work by activities rather than job roles, because it’s tasks that can be automated, not whole positions. Even senior executives, after all, have aspects of their job that a robot could do.

The results show that as many as half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055. But while the findings suggests that 60 percent of all jobs may have 30 percent of their constituent tasks taken over by robots, they also show that only 5 percent of jobs will become fully automated. In other words, the analysis suggests that in the next 40 years most jobs will change, or in the worst case shrink, rather than being devoured.

That’s in some contrast to other predictions being made about the future of work. Perhaps the gloomiest have been made by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from the University of Oxford. Their analysis suggested that as many as 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk from automation over the next 20 years.

Speaking to the New York Times, James Manyika, an author of the McKinsey report, explained why he thinks the takeover of jobs could prove slower than others have predicted. “How automation affects employment will not be decided simply by what is technically feasible, which is what technologists tend to focus on,” he explains. 

In fact, their report argues that to reap the economic benefits of automation, humans are going to have to work alongside robots for some time. The company believes that the improved efficiency of a robot and AI workforce could boost global productivity by as much as 0.8 percent, but only if humans continue to work. That makes sense: humans will still need to live, and economic gains could be quickly gobbled up if people are paid to do nothing.

The report doesn’t, however, offer any insight into how humans will find new work to do as it’s gradually taken up by machines—it merely points out they will have to. So we still have employment worries ahead, but we may have a little more time than we thought to overcome them.

(Read more: A Future That Works, The New York Times, “How Technology Is Destroying Jobs,” “China Is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers,” “Basic Income: A Sellout of the American Dream”)

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