A new report predicts that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation. The study, compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, says that advances in AI and robotics will have a drastic effect on everyday working lives, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution. In the US alone, between 39 and 73 million jobs stand to be automated — making up around a third of the total workforce.
But, the report also states that as in the past, technology will not be a purely destructive force. New jobs will be created; existing roles will be redefined; and workers will have the opportunity to switch careers. The challenge particular to this generation, say the authors, is managing the transition. Income inequality is likely to grow, possibly leading to political instability; and the individuals who need to retrain for new careers won’t be the young, but middle-aged professionals.
The changes won’t hit everyone equally. Only 5 percent of current occupations stand to be completely automated if today’s cutting-edge technology is widely adopted, while in 60 percent of jobs, one-third of activities will be automated. Quoting a US government commission from the 1960s on the same topic, McKinsey’s researchers summarize: “technology destroys jobs, but not work.” As an example, it examines the effect of the personal computer in the US since 1980, finding that the invention led to the creation of 18.5 million new jobs, even when accounting for jobs lost. (The same might not be true of industrial robots, which earlier reports suggest destroy jobs overall.)
As with previous studies on this topic, there’s much to be said for taking a skeptical view. Economic forecasting is not an exact science, and McKinsey’s researchers are keen to stress that their predictions are just that. The figure of 800 million jobs lost worldwide, for example, is only the most extreme of possible scenarios, and the report also suggests a middle estimate of 400 million jobs.
Nevertheless, this study is one of the most comprehensive in recent years, modeling changes in more than 800 occupations, and taking in some 46 countries, accounting for 90 percent of world GDP. Six nations are also analyzed in detail — the US, China, Germany, Japan, India, and Mexico — with these countries representing a range of economic situations and differently organized workforces.