Wait! What jobs will be safe from robots?

An excerpt from The Guardian, June 2017

Ford, the futurist, classifies resilient jobs in three areas.

The first is jobs that involve “genuine creativity, such as being an artist, being a scientist, developing a new business strategy”. Ford notes: “For now, humans are still best at creativity but there’s a caveat there. I can’t guarantee you that in 20 years a computer won’t be the most creative entity on the planet. There are already computers that can paint original works of art. So, in 20 years who knows how far it’s going to go?”

The second area is occupations that involve building complex relationships with people: nurses, for example, or a business role that requires you to build close relationships with clients.

The third area is jobs that are highly unpredictable – for example, if you’re a plumber who is called out to emergencies in different locations.

You can see these parameters at play in the jobs The Future of Employment identifies as least at risk of automation, which include recreational therapists, first-line supervisors of mechanics, installers, repairers, occupational therapists and healthcare social workers.

While being in a creative or people-focused industry may keep your job safe for the next 10 years or so, it’s very hard to predict what will happen 20 years into the future. Indeed, Susskind stresses that we should be wary of downplaying just how much computers might change the working world.

She says she believes that the 2020s are going to be a decade not of unemployment, but of redeployment. Beyond that, however, the picture is far less clear: “I don’t think anyone can do long-term career planning with any confidence.” As Susskind notes, “we make assumptions about the indispensability of human beings”, but machines are already doing things we thought only humans might be able to. They’re composing original music, for example, and beating professional players at complex board games with creative moves.

They’re even helping us with our relationships with God. While the clergy only has a 0.81% probability of automation, according to data from The Future of Jobs, Susskind believes even algorithms might one day replace the ordained. As he notes, there are already apps like Confession which offer “drop-down menus for tracking sin”.

While we’ve been doing a lot of robot-bashing, it should be noted that automation isn’t the only phenomenon having an impact on the job market. Saadia Zahidi, head of the education, gender and work system initiative at the World Economic Forum (WEF), says that we “shouldn’t forget that there are other drivers of change”.

A 2016 WEF report identified such drivers as climate change, the rise of the middle class in many emerging markets, aging populations in certain parts of Europe and East Asia, and the changing aspirations of women as factors that will have significant impacts on jobs. “It’s really the coming together of these various drivers of change that then leads to disruptions in the labor market,” Zahidi notes.

The report warns that we’re going to see significant ramifications from automation very soon. Zahidi explains: “The next three years will be a period of flux and a period of relatively higher losses than gains. This is not meant to be alarmist in the sense that there will be heavy job losses. But if we do nothing then this will be where we end up.”

Automation may also exacerbate gender inequality, Zahidi says. Women don’t make up a large proportion of people who are going into science, technology, engineering and math (Stem) and IT fields, which are likely to be the areas in which jobs will grow. On the other hand, Zahidi notes, there do tend to be more women in care-related professions, such as healthcare and education, which are at a lower risk of automation.  In the long run, women may actually end up faring better from technological change. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report found that a higher proportion of male than female jobs are at risk of automation, especially those of men with lower levels of education.

Justin Tobin, founder of the innovation consultancy DDG, says he believes: “More and more independent thinkers are realizing that when being an employee is the equivalent to putting all your money into one stock – a better strategy is to diversify your portfolio. So you’re seeing a lot more people looking to diversify their career.”

Faith Popcorn, a futurist, echoes the idea that we will all have to become as agile as possible and “have many forms of talent and work that you can provide the economy”.  In the future, she says, we’ll all have seven or eight jobs, with the average adult working for a number of companies simultaneously rather than working for one big corporation.

“We’re in the midst of this huge sweeping change that is going to impact all levels of society,” Popcorn warns.

Predicting the future is Popcorn’s livelihood, and she’s made herself a bit of a legend over the years doing so, but even she seems a little unsettled by the pace of change today. As she tells me with a world-weary sigh, it “just makes you want to have some more tequila”.

The safest jobs

Mental health and substance abuse social worker – Chance of automation: 0.3%
Occupational therapist, Chance of automation: 0.35%
Dietitian and nutritionist: Chance of automation: 0.39%
Physician and surgeon: Chance of automation: 0.42%
Clergy: Chance of automation: 0.81%