Soon after taking office, the new president created a national commission to examine the impact of automation. No family should pay an unjust price for progress, he announced, yet automation should not be viewed as an enemy. “If we understand it, if we plan for it, if we apply it well, automation will not be a job destroyer or a family displaced. Instead, it can remove dullness from the work of man and provide him with more than man has ever had before.”
The U.S. president who spoke those words was Lyndon B. Johnson, and the year was 1964.
A half-century later, technology has advanced at breakneck speed. Who back then, other than science fiction writers, could have imagined Amazon’s drone shipments, the legions of robots at work today in manufacturing, or the algorithms now being used to detect cancers? Yet anxiety about automation is still with us. Today there is concerned debate about the impact of technology on the economy and especially on the future of work.
It’s instructive to note how the economy has continued to prosper, and people have continued to work, since the 1960s, even as the workplace itself has been reshaped by technology. New jobs that could not have been imagined at the time, such as app developer or MRI technician, have replaced obsolete ones, such as switchboard operators. That’s a pattern we have seen since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, two centuries ago, when more than 60% of Americans worked on the land; today it’s less than 2%. Still, we cannot help but wonder: Could this time be different?
We have just published new research about automation’s potential effects, based on an in-depth analysis of more than 2,000 workplace activities across 800 occupations. We focused on activities because all occupations consist of numerous activities, each of which can be automated to a varying degree. Within marketing, for example, some tasks can be automated easily, but others cannot.
We found that half of the activities people are paid to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated using current technology. The most automatable activities involve data collection, data processing, and physical work in predictable environments like factories, which make up 51% of employment activities (not jobs) and $2.7 trillion of wages in the U.S. These activities are most prevalent in sectors such as manufacturing, food services, transportation and warehousing, and retail.
More occupations will change than will be automated in the short to medium term. Only a small proportion of all occupations (about 5%) can be entirely automated using these demonstrated technologies over the coming decade, though the proportion is likely to be higher in middle-skill job categories. But we found that about 30% of the activities in 60% of all occupations could be automated — and that will affect everyone from welders to landscape gardeners to mortgage brokers to CEOs.
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