Is your job threatened by automation?

By John Leonard
31 Jul 2014 View Comments

The future looks bright for occupational therapists and choreographers - but bleak for telemarketers and insurance underwriters. And if you are worried about being displaced by a machine, you are better off living in the UK or other northern European countries than you are in Romania or Portugal.

Bruegel, an independent think tank specialising in economics, has applied the results of a recent study by Oxford academics of the potential impact of automation on various US job roles to European employment classifications. 

Further reading

That study had suggested that almost half of all jobs in the US might be susceptible to loss through computerisation over the next two decades.

Bruegel found that job loss patterns for much of Northern Europe are likely to be similar to those in the US, but that some southern European countries, including Portugal, Romania and Spain, are likely to see a higher proportion of their citizens made redundant as a result of technology. 

These results correlate strongly with indicators such as GDP, education, the proportion of low-skilled jobs and the speed at which new technology is adopted.

Of course, technology also creates new jobs, but these generally require higher levels of educational attainment than those lost. Lower rates of technology adoption and lower levels of education relative to the richer countries mean that those states likely to be hit hardest in terms of job losses are also those that will find it hardest to retrain their workforces to take advantage of technological advances.

The original paper The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation? (PDF) by Oxford research fellow Carl Frey and associate professor in machine learning Michael Osborne found that jobs in transportation, logistics and administrative support were at particularly high risk of being lost through automation.

Frey and Osborne identify three main barriers, the presence of which mean that a particular role is unlikely to be automated - for now at least. These are:

  • Creative intelligence - the ability to come up with ideas or artifacts that are novel and valuable;
  • Social intelligence - abilities such as negotiation, persuasion and care; and, 
  • Perception and manipulation - tasks based on pattern recognition, such as identifying objects and their properties in a cluttered field of view

Easily replicated by software algorithms and more efficiently performed by machines, low-skill, repetitive, routine jobs not requiring these three attributes have been disappearing for decades.

For example, metal is now bashed by robots, while fields are tilled, sowed and harvested by computer-controlled machinery. However, the authors state that big data technologies are starting to make it possible for even complex roles involving much human interaction to be automated.

"Algorithms for big data are already rapidly entering domains reliant upon storing or accessing information, making it equally intuitive that office and administrative support occupations will be subject to computerisation.

"The computerisation of production occupations simply suggests a continuation of a trend that has been observed over the past decades, with industrial robots taking on the routine tasks of most operatives in manufacturing," write Frey and Osborne.

Thus, some sales jobs, a role traditionally requiring a high degree of social intelligence and interactivity, are among the most likely to be automated in the future. The full list of 702 occupations is available as an appendix to the report (PDF), pages 57-72.

European policy makers, says Bruegel, must take account of these changes, not least because of the social instability that unemployment and under-employment among large parts of the population are likely to bring.

"Technology is likely to dramatically reshape labour markets in the long run and to cause re-allocations in the types of skills that the workers of tomorrow will need. To mitigate the risks of this re-allocation it is important for our educational system to adapt," writes economist Jeremy Bowles for Bruegel.

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