In recent years, basic income has found support across the political spectrum. While some have justified it as a human rights issue, others believe it to be necessary in the fight against poverty and rising inequality. According to many supporters, these are sufficient justifications in their own right. However, many basic income proponents also cite the growing threat of automation to employment. Put simply, as robots become smarter and cheaper, more and more workers will find themselves out of a job, and basic income programs will be required to offset rising unemployment and job displacement. This view is particularly popular in Silicon Valley and has been championed by the likes of Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg. However, a new report from Pearson, an education publishing company, challenges this line of reasoning.
Pearson’s analysis, with help from researchers at Nesta and the Oxford Martin School, diverges from previous reports on automation (Frey & Osborne, 2013; Arntz et. Al, 2016; McKinsey, 2017; Richard Berriman, 2017) in two key respects. While previous studies have tended to focus exclusively on the potentially destructive effects of automation, Pearson’s report also incorporates the potential for growth in jobs and skills that may be complemented by automation. The study also considers how automation may interact with seven specific global trends to affect supply and demand in the labor market over the next decade: (1) environmental sustainability, (2) urbanization, (3) increasing inequality, (4) political uncertainty, (5) technological change, (6) globalization, and (7) demographic change.
Pearson’s report relies on a combination of expert testimony and, perhaps fittingly, machine-learning. Two panels of artificial intelligence experts in the United States and United Kingdom were asked to rate the future prospects of thirty occupations in the context of the seven global trends identified by the researchers, and to report on how certain they were in their predictions. This information was then fed into machine-learning algorithms, along with data from the U.S. Department of Labor, to generate predictions for more than 1,000 occupations in the United States and United Kingdom.
Using this model, the researchers at Pearson reached the following six conclusions:
- 20% of the workforce are in occupations that will shrink.
This figure is smaller than previous high-end estimates of 47% (Frey & Osborne, 2013), but also larger than more conservative estimates of 9% (Arntz et. Al, 2016). In line with previous findings, Pearson reports that routine, physical or manual abilities will become less valuable over time. However, Pearson also notes that certain sectors typically considered doomed by automation such as agriculture, trades, and construction, may actually show pockets of job growth where new skills are required to complement new technologies. So, it can be said that there cannot be a complete elimination of people in the workforce. Instead, building skill sets to work alongside automated machines could be the way to go. For example, with large industries adopting newer technologies and automation to improve the production process, an automation parts supplier could be the need of the hour, as there will always be a requirement for people who have the necessary knowledge to handle new machines and implement efficient functionalities.
- 10% of the workforce are in occupations that will grow.
Specifically, the researchers argue that jobs involving judgment and decision making, teaching, active learning, interpersonal skills, complex problem-solving, originality, fluency of ideas, and systems thinking will all grow in value. Jobs in high demand will include teachers and education professionals, sports and fitness workers, caregivers, managers, hospitality workers, legal professionals, and engineers. Occupations in the public sector, as well as those resistant to globalization, emerge as particularly resilient. Further, jobs in the construction sector and those that involve outdoor manual work could also need constant manpower, as we see companies such as Crane Renovation Group reaching out to potential workforce to increase hiring and provide consistent jobs. Pearson also points out that jobs and skills that will become more valuable are not specifically confined to any one particular income bracket or skill level.
- 70% of the workforce are in occupations where their future is uncertain.
- So-called “21st century” skills will experience higher demand.
- Both knowledge and skills will be required for the future economy.
- Occupations can be re-designed to pair uniquely human skills with technology.
A global leader in education publishing itself, Pearson argues for sweeping reforms to education systems so that they may adapt faster to the changing needs of labor markets, and begin offering more flexible pathways to employment including credentials and microdegrees. Pearson also advises business leaders to start thinking of ways to redesign roles to balance technological and human resources. Finally, the researchers encourage individuals to develop skills that are “uniquely human” and commit to becoming lifelong learners.
However, the report is not without limitations and the researchers note the large degree of uncertainty baked into any analysis of job creation, which is notoriously more difficult to predict than job destruction. Critics have also argued that Pearson greatly underestimates the difficulty of implementing public and private reforms in the context of the political and social turbulence accompanying severe job displacement.
Nevertheless, despite these limitations and the challenges that lie ahead, Pearson’s researchers remain optimistic about the future of work. They summarize their findings rather succinctly: “The bottom line of our research, we can all stop agonizing about machines taking our jobs.”