Robots Are Coming for Your Job, But Only If You're Poor
New research says jobs paying less than £30,000 a year are almost five times more likely to be automated than jobs paying over £100,000.
Image: Spencer Cooper/Flickr
Last year, a widely discussed study suggested the 47 percent of US jobs were at risk from the robot takeover. Today, the authors of that paper, Oxford University's Carl Frey and Michael Osborne have published the results of similar research for the UK along with a team from financial firm Deloitte—and it looks like the robo-revolution will be slightly slower this side of the pond. But it will still prove significant: their latest report suggests that 35 percent of UK jobs are at "high risk of being made redundant by technology in the next 10 to 20 years."
But as in the US, automation won't hit everyone equally. The chance of finding yourself replaced by a robot varies depending on where you work, the field you work in, and how much you earn (factors that are obviously linked). An engineer in London who earns six figures? You probably don't have to worry. A salesperson in the city on the average UK salary? The odds don't look so good.
Across the whole country, Frey and Osborne estimated, jobs paying less than £30,000 ($48,000) are nearly five times more likely to be lost to automation than jobs paying over £100,000 ($159,000).
To come to their conclusions, the researchers get into some of the finer points of how automation will affect the workplace: They highlight jobs in administrative support, transportation, sales and services, construction, and manufacturing as among the most high-risk from technology.
Jobs paying less than £30,000 are nearly five times more likely to be lost to automation than jobs paying over £100,000
Meanwhile, jobs in sectors like financial services, senior management, engineering, law, science, education, and the arts and media (phew) are at the least risk of being roboticized. That broadly echoes what they suggested in their US analysis and basically reflects where automated systems are at now: great at repetitive drudgery, not so much at creative thought and people skills.
This might also explain to some extent the discrepancy between the figures the researchers give for the US and UK. In a blog post on the Nesta website, the researchers write that the UK has more people working in jobs they classify as creative.
They explain that 21 percent of US jobs have a high probability of being "creative" by the definition they use, a number that rises to 24 percent in the UK. They write that "[P]laces that have specialised in creative work are most likely to prosper in the 21st century. In this regard the United Kingdom is in a good starting position—even better than the US it seems."
Frey and Osborne suggest some other interesting trends, too. First up, they propose that jobs in London will be less susceptible to automation. While 35 percent of jobs are "high risk" across the UK, only 30 percent of London jobs are. And while 40 percent of all UK jobs are considered at "low or no risk," a whole 51 percent of London jobs find themselves in that safety net.
The report states that, "The reason that the number of jobs at risk in London is relatively low [is] because a large proportion of the work force is already in high-skill roles that technology cannot easily replace."
This is where Deloitte's contribution to the work comes in, as they surveyed 100 London businesses and found a 73 percent majority planned to hire more (human) workers in the next five years. What's really happening is that jobs that are more likely to be automated are moving away from the city, which is instead booming in jobs that humans still dominate. As some jobs are lost to technology, others pop up in their place.
But even in London, which may on the surface seem more prepared to embrace the robot workforce, the burden will not be distributed equally; the rich, as always, have the most to gain from the robot revolution, and the poor the most to lose. In fact, the unequal impact of automation is all the more evident in the capital city.
Because although jobs paying less than £30,000 are predicted to be five times more at risk than jobs paying over £100,000 in the UK on the whole, the discrepancy is even larger in London. In the city alone, the lower-paid jobs are a whole eight times more likely to be lost than the higher-paying jobs.
While the report concludes that, "Cities that maintain their ability to shift workers into new employment opportunities resulting from technological change will prove the most resilient," it seems unlikely that the workers who are in a position to take on these new, human-specific, and likely higher-paid roles will be the same low-paid employees that have lost their job to automation.