Way back in the 1930s, the economist Keynes raised concerns about what he called ‘technological unemployment’ now referred to as ‘worker displacement’.
According to Frey and Osborne’s 2013 Oxford study, as many as 47% of current US jobs are at risk of automation, while a 2016 OECD study estimated the figure at just 9%. The Office for National Statistics now argues that these wide discrepancies can be linked to methodological issues and has sought to combine the different approaches.
ONS argues that 1.5 million people (about 1 in 12) are employed in ‘high risk’ (of automation) jobs; a fall in absolute terms of 46,000 employees, 0.7% fewer when compared with 2011. Conversely, the number of employees in jobs at low risk of automation in 2017 was 5.5 million, equating to 27.7% of all employees, a rise of 2.4% since 2011.
Labour replacement is already well underway in high risk jobs – according to ONS there’s been a 25% fall in the number of retail cashiers and check -out operators since 2011. The study also found that jobs currently performed by young adults and women are more at risk from automation, partly because these groups are more likely to work in entry-level jobs that have simpler tasks which can be more easily computerised.
Higher levels of education still protect workers from automation. The ONS said that, of the jobs at risk, 39% were held by people whose educational attainment level was GCSE or below, while 1.2% were held by those who had been through higher education or university. This can only intensify ‘the race against the machine’ – young people flocking to universities to provide some insurance against future joblessness.
The Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of new labour-saving machinery and technology leading to many jobs becoming obsolete. However, this led to new and better jobs being created, a process of ‘worker augmentation’ – what’s unclear is whether the digital technology of the ‘second machine age’ will have the same effect? Many commentators doubt this, pointing to growing unemployment and rising inequality. Despite his concerns, Keynes recognised the potential advantages of being able to shorten the working week. But labour movement organisations have been slow to incorporate this into their programmes.