Is Your Job About To Disappear?: QuickTake

By Mark WhitehouseMark Whitehouse, Mira RojanasakulMira Rojanasakul and Cedric SamCedric Sam

Thirteen years ago, two prominent U.S. economists wrote that driverless cars couldn’t execute a left turn against oncoming traffic because too many factors were involved. Six years later, Google proved it could make fully autonomous cars, threatening the livelihoods of millions of truck and taxi drivers. Throughout much of the developed world, gainful employment is seen as almost a fundamental right. But what if, in the not-too-distant future, there won’t be enough jobs to go around? That’s what some economists think will happen as robots and artificial intelligence increasingly become capable of performing human tasks. Of course, past technological upheavals created more jobs than they destroyed. But some labor experts argue that this time could be different: Technology is replacing human brains as well as brawn.

When politicians talk about jobs, they tend to focus on iconic, goods-producing industries, such as mining, steel production and auto making, that have traditionally been the hardest hit by global competition and technological progress. Lately, though, the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. pales in comparison to the much larger losses in parts of the services sector.

Top 10 Job-Losing Subsectors in the U.S. 1

Goods

Services

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Overall, services accounted for three-fourths of the job losses among more than 350 sectors of the private economy in the last year. That’s a big shift from previous decades, when goods-producing categories tended to suffer the most losses.

Top Job-Losing Subsectors as of April 2017

Goods

Services

Retail

Wired telecommunications carriers

–27.2K

Department stores

–26.8K

Sporting goods and musical instrument stores

–15.5K

Electronics stores

–15.0K

Clothing stores

–14.4K

The retail industry alone accounted for four of the ten subsectors with the biggest losses in the first four months of 2017, compared with the same period a year earlier

Newspaper, book and directory publishers

–14.0K

Semiconductors and electronic components

–10.9K

Spectator sports

–10.7K

Aerospace products and parts

–10.4K

Printing and related support activities

–10.2K

Wired telecommunications carriers

–27.2K

Department stores

–26.8K

Sporting goods and musical instrument stores

–15.5K

Electronics stores

–15.0K

Clothing stores

–14.4K

The retail industry alone accounted for four of the ten subsectors with the biggest losses in the first four months of 2017, compared with the same period a year earlier

Newspaper, book, & directory publishers

–14.0K

Semiconductors & elec. comp.

–10.9K

Spectator sports

–10.7K

Aerospace products and parts

–10.4K

Printing & related activities

–10.2K

Wired telecommunications carriers

–27.2K

Department stores

–26.8K

Sporting goods and musical instrument stores

–15.5K

The retail industry alone accounted for four of the ten subsectors with the biggest losses in the first four months of 2017, compared with the same period a year earlier

Electronics stores

–15.0K

Clothing stores

–14.4K

Newspaper, book and directory publishers

–14.0K

Semiconductors and electronic components

–10.9K

Spectator sports

–10.7K

Aerospace products and parts

–10.4K

Printing and related support activities

–10.2K

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics

In the U.S., for example, department stores employ 25 times more workers than coal mining companies. And as customers increasingly purchased goods via the internet, average employment in the first four months of 2017 was down 26,800 from the same period a year earlier, against just 2,800 job losses in coal.

Job Losses in Coal Mining vs. Department Stores

Department Stores

Coal Mining

2017 employment: 1.28M

50.6K

2.8K jobs lost

26.8K jobs lost

Department Stores

Coal Mining

2017 employment: 1.28M

50.6K

2.8K jobs lost

26.8K jobs lost

Department Stores

2017 employment: 1.28M

26.8K jobs lost

Coal Mining

50.6K

2.8K jobs lost

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Employment data are averages for first four months of 2017; losses are from comparison to the same period in 2016

The effect on labor markets of free-trade agreements and increased immigration has already caused significant political upheaval, as the resurgence of populism in the U.S. and Europe demonstrates. But some economists believe that the world is on the cusp of much bigger change, on the scale of the revolution brought about by industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries. Researchers at the University of Oxford estimate that nearly half of all U.S. jobs may be at risk in the coming decades, with lower-paid occupations among the most vulnerable.

Is Your Job At Risk? 2

  • Doctoral or Professional Degree

  • Master’s

  • Bachelor’s

  • Associate’s

  • Postsecondary Nondegree Award

  • Some College

  • High School Diploma or Equivalent

  • No Formal Education Credential

⟵ Least likely to be automated

Most likely to be automated ⟶

Data: Frey & Osborne, Bureau of Labor Statistics

In the U.K., the Bank of England estimates that about 15 million mostly service jobs—half the country’s total—could succumb to automation and widen the gap between rich and poor. A McKinsey Global Institute study of the labor force in 46 countries found that less than 5 percent of occupations could be fully automated using today's technology, but almost a third of tasks involved in 60 percent of occupations could be.

There’s ample room for skepticism. U.S. productivity growth has been slow, exactly the opposite of what one would expect if robots were taking over. Also, advances in artificial intelligence could end up focusing mostly on specific tasks rather than entire jobs, augmenting rather than replacing humans. That said, history teaches us that it’s hard to predict how technological change will unfold. Even if, as some economists predict, new jobs and industries eventually replace those being automated, large portions of the global workforce may need retraining. And if work becomes a luxury, widespread joblessness and greater inequality could redefine the challenge of ensuring a social safety net.

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