When it comes to the threat or promise of automation, experts are divided as to whether AI and robotics will eliminate jobs en masse or merely automate rote tasks and free up more of workers’ time for innovation and creativity. McKinsey has put out some interesting research throughout the year in which they attempt to forecast the impact of these new technologies on the workforce. In January, they released the attention-grabbing headline finding that half of the work currently performed by humans could be automated with already-existing technology. Though fewer than 5 percent of jobs can be automated entirely, their research found, most jobs could have at least one third of their component tasks automated today.
In an update to that work published this week, McKinsey takes a closer look at the various factors that will drive automation in the coming decades—such as technical feasibility, cost of deployment, and labor market considerations—and concludes that “between almost zero and 30 percent of the hours worked globally could be automated by 2030, depending on the speed of adoption.” The effects will not, however, be evenly distributed among occupations:
Activities most susceptible to automation include physical ones in predictable environments, such as operating machinery and preparing fast food. Collecting and processing data are two other categories of activities that increasingly can be done better and faster with machines. This could displace large amounts of labor—for instance, in mortgage origination, paralegal work, accounting, and back-office transaction processing. … Automation will have a lesser effect on jobs that involve managing people, applying expertise, and social interactions, where machines are unable to match human performance for now.
Jobs in unpredictable environments—occupations such as gardeners, plumbers, or providers of child- and eldercare—will also generally see less automation by 2030, because they are technically difficult to automate and often command relatively lower wages, which makes automation a less attractive business proposition.
The automation of some parts of a job, the researchers note, does not mean the loss of that job, but the worker’s tasks will change. That means many employees will likely need to learn new skills or otherwise adjust to transformations in their role by 2030: Overall, McKinsey estimates that between 400 and 800 million workers worldwide could be displaced by automation and as many as 375 million may need to switch occupations and gain new skills.
Despite the widespread fear of automation rendering humans obsolete, some of the factors McKinsey considers are likely to create jobs at the same time, such as rising incomes and consumption, increased need for services for the aging population, and investments in advancing infrastructure, technology, and renewable energy. The study suggests most of the growth in consumption will be in “emerging economies” and estimates well over 300 million new jobs as a result of increased spending on consumer goods, healthcare and education.
McKinsey also makes a set of recommendations to manage the transitions and change brought about by automation. The four areas they believe societies need to address are: maintaining economic growth, revamping job retraining and skill development systems, better enabling market transactions, and providing transition support to workers. In this case, business and governments must work closely together in the interest of workers and their own economic stability to navigate the challenges of the near future. While the outcomes may not be as dire as the automation doomsayers predict, it will take a concerted effort on the part of all these stakeholders to ensure that automation’s impact on the workforce is more positive than negative