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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Your white-collar job is not safe from automation

Automation and artificial intelligence are commonly thought of as threats to only blue-collar jobs. That’s simply not true.

In 2013, economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne released a report named “The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” The authors examined the job security of 702 different fields, evaluating how at risk these occupations were to automation. Their findings — that as many as 47% of American jobs could be replaced by mechanization within the next decade or two — shocked many.

Traditionally, automation has been thought of as a threat to the job security of blue-collar fields, such as manufacturing or truck driving. However, recent technological advances show historically white-collar jobs are now in danger as well. Computer programs, for example, currently handle 80% of all trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The Associated Press and Bloomberg News use automated technology to help compose news stories, and by one study’s estimate, artificial intelligence is significantly more effective than human lawyers at deciphering legal documentation. One website even allows you to see the probability of your job being replaced by automation within the next two decades.

Unsurprisingly, the threat posed by automation became an increasingly important issue on the political stage, particularly in the Rust Belt. But for the most part, politicians still largely ignore the very real possibility that white-collar work might be next on the chopping block. With the exception of Democratic long-shot Andrew Yang, who discussed the universal threat posed by automation in his 2018 book “The War on Normal People,” the topic appears to be taking a backseat to more contentious issues.

Job retraining programs and universal basic income are among the most prominent solutions proposed by those concerned with the threat of automation. While UBI, as well as other social welfare programs like universal healthcare, increasingly garner Democratic supporters, it’s unlikely these programs will offset the consequences of a totally new economic evolution. Furthermore, job retraining programs are unlikely to help laid-off blue-collar workers — largely middle-aged, non-college educated laborers — whose experience with menial labor does not prepare them for more highly-skilled fields. Reducing white-collar unemployment will also likely face complications, as there is no guarantee a sufficient number of job opportunities would exist in a technologically-revolutionized economy.

Of course, job loss is more than a purely economic issue. Although many of us would graciously welcome a decreased workload, for some people employment can provide life with necessary meaning and fulfillment. Therefore, a loss of employment opportunities not only threatens the economic security of Americans, but also their mental and physical well-being. Widespread unemployment in the Rust Belt due to deindustrialization resulted in many people exiting the workforce altogether, fueling a modern drug epidemic that deteriorated once-prosperous towns and contributing to the election of Donald Trump.

The exponential nature of technological growth means automation-driven job loss will become less of a class-based affair and more of a universal social ill. Confronting this dilemma will require developing innovative solutions beyond the norm, perhaps ones that may even challenge the orthodoxy that any form of technological advancement is inherently good.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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