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Half of all U.S. jobs will be automated, but what opportunities will be created?

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A study out of Oxford University has grim news for U.S. workers: up to 45% of all jobs will be automated within the next 20 years. But there is little mention of what needs to be done to provide more opportunity.

Photo credit: Joe McKendrick

In a working paper co-authored by Dr. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, both of Oxford, 702 occupations were reviewed to determine their susceptibility to automation. There isn't much information available on the study itself, but in an overview in MIT Technology Review, the authors suggest that it will be mainly jobs that don't require high levels of "creative and social skills."

The automation of half the nation's jobs will occur in two phases, the study says: The first wave will affect (and is affecting) jobs in transportation/logistics, production labor, administrative support, services, sales, and construction. The second wave -- propelled by artificial intelligence -- will affect jobs in management, science, engineering, and the arts.

Just as interesting as the study is the response provided by Gary Reber, founder and executive director of For Economic Justice, who argues that owners of the means of production will actually thrive as such a shift takes place. Those who rely on 9-to-5 standard employment arrangements for subsistence are likely to  suffer the most in the automation wave. As Reber put it: 'Full employment is not an objective of businesses. Companies strive to keep labor input and other costs at a minimum."

Those who are entrepreneurially minded, and apply creative solutions using automation and technology, are likely to continue to thrive as economic activity becomes increasingly digitized.

Such opportunities aren't limited to putting up one's life savings to launch startups, either. With social media and an abundance of cheap cloud-based resources, there are opportunities for current employees as well as freelancers to forge alliances and fill in gaps that traditional corporations cannot fill. For example, there is demand for contract information brokers, data analysts, financial analysts, and app designers and developers. The pages of SmartPlanet are filled with examples of businesses being launched to bring fresh insights via product design, energy reuse, smartphone repair, floating business incubators, new media, forensic portraiture, and sustainable farming. And these examples are just from the last two or three weeks.

Yes, it's clear that many jobs are being automated, and there will be pain from displacement. But it's time to amp up the discussion on how people can better realize the opportunities that are being created.

— By on September 13, 2013, 6:40 AM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure