A recent Deloitte study based on 140 years of England and Wales census data found that technology has produced more new jobs than made existing ones obsolete. This is particularly true of “caring” occupations that require cognitive thinking, such as nurses and teachers, as opposed to “muscle power” occupations, such as weavers and metal-makers, which are more easily replaced by machinery. In other words, as long as we have brains and do our best to maximize their potential, we may not need to be terrified that we will be replaced by robots. While it’s important to keep in mind that the Deloitte economists’ assessment is limited to the U.K. workforce and thus not necessarily indicative of larger global trends, the study’s findings do paint an overall rosier picture of technology’s impact on human-occupied occupations in comparison to other recent studies.
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A Look at the Numbers
The researchers note a “long-term shift from muscle power to the caring professions” since 1871. According to the Deloitte study’s authors, Ian Stewart, Debapratim De, and Alex Cole, “caring” occupations went from representing 1.1 percent of total U.K. employment in 1871 to 12.2 percent in 2011, whereas “muscle power” occupations decreased from 23.7 to 8.3 percent during the same period.
The “muscle” to “care” shift is especially evident between 1992 and 2014. Although the number of agriculture and manufacturing-related occupations decreased, U.K. employment rose 23 percent as a whole, with jobs in the “caring, creative, technology, and business services sectors” experiencing particularly significant growth.
For example, the number of nursing auxiliaries and assistant positions increased from 29,743 in 1992 to 300,201 in 2014 (a 909 percent rise). The following professions also grew: teaching and educational support assistants (580 percent); management consultants and business analysts (365 percent); information technology managers and above (195 percent); welfare, housing, youth and community workers (183 percent); care workers and home carers (168 percent); actors, dancers, entertainment presenters, producers, and directors (156 percent).
Sectors that suffered during the same time span include footwear and leather working trades (-82 percent); weavers and knitters (-79 percent); metal making and treating process operatives (-70 percent); typists and related keyboard occupations (-57 percent); company secretaries (-52 percent); and farm workers (-50 percent).
The reason for the shift? “Routine jobs, both cognitive and manual, have suffered most, because technology can readily substitute for labour,” the economists explain. On the flip side, “technology is highly complementary to cognitive, non-routine tasks such as management consultancy where employment growth has been strong.”
To summarize, manufacturing or white collar jobs that entail “routine” tasks, such as processing paperwork, have suffered a blow because they are more easily replaced by technology, whereas creative and care-related occupations that involve “non-routine manual tasks” have grown because because you’d be hard pressed to find a machine that can replicate a medical professional’s bedside manner or a comedian’s stand-up routine.
Countering the Counter-Narratives
The study’s ultimately positive narrative serves as an interesting counterargument to other recent studies that have argued that technology threatens to render human labour obsolete. For example, in 2014, a different Deloitte report claimed that “35% of UK jobs, and 30% in London, are at high risk from automation over the next two decades.” A 2013 Oxford Martin School study cited in a recent PayScale article similarly found that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of automation.
And in a more psychologically nuanced example, 48 percent of 1,896 U.S. technology experts polled in a recent PEW Foundation survey “envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers — with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.”
According to Stewart, De, and Cole, assessments like these are examples of how “the technology debate is skewed towards destruction.” This is because while negative forecasts like them report on the elimination of certain jobs, they fail to acknowledge the creation of (and potential for) new ones.
“Such worries,” the authors argue, “feed into, and reflect, a wider pessimism about long-term growth prospects for the West.”
Check out these other PayScale articles about the threat (or lack thereof) that robots pose to human labor.
Here’s Why Robots Might Not Take Our Jobs, (Aug 2014)
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