Could a computer do your job?

Emma Woollacott
BBEDMF Worried Businesswoman  business; people; woman; 40-50; year; old; women; only; 1; 30-40; year; old; computer; office; tec
BBEDMF Worried Businesswoman business; people; woman; 40-50; year; old; women; only; 1; 30-40; year; old; computer; office; tec

From the dawn of time, human beings have used technology to make it easier to do their jobs, whether with a stone axe or with a laptop.

Luddites apart, this has generally been seen as a good thing, with John Maynard Keynes predicting in 1930 that automation would lead to a nation at leisure, with a 15-hour work week for all.

But while there has indeed been an explosion in the number of people working part-time, this isn't always voluntary - so were the Luddites right after all, and are many workers now in danger of being replaced completely?

Most people seem to be pretty blasé about the prospect. Jobs site Monster found recently that, internationally, nearly two thirds of workers believe that their job could never be replaced completely by a computer, with only a quarter believing that it could disappear within the next decade.

However, two years ago, University of Oxford researchers estimated that an astonishing 47% of total US jobs could be automated by 2033. And it's not necessarily the ones you might think, with the researchers saying that insurance underwriters, paralegals, accountants and auditors all have at least a 90% chance of eventually being replaced by computers.

And we're hardly more immune here in the UK, with 35% of jobs vulnerable to automation, a new report shows.

Nesta, a charity set up to foster innovation in the UK, has examined 500 careers to establish which are most at risk of being replaced. And, it concludes, the creative professions are those most likely to still be around in 20 years' time.

In sharp contradiction to the advice your mother might have given you, art, music, graphic design and computer game programming are likely to be the safest professions over the coming decades. Archivists, farmers and distillers are most in danger.

But many traditional white-collar jobs are threatened too. Already, lawyers and accountants are finding that large parts of their jobs are being replaced by software. And with some types of journalism involving less creativity than others, even writers can be vulnerable: earthquake reports in the LA Times are already written by computer, generated automatically from official government alerts.

Most astonishingly, perhaps, researchers at the US Institute for the Future recently created a software package they called iCEO to automate senior management tasks. When charged with overseeing the preparation of a 124-page research report for a prestigious client, the software structured the project, recruited workers online and produced a competent report in a fraction of the time a real manager would have required.

But the good news is that the UK already has 2.6 million creative jobs out there, from advertising professionals to computer programmers, and from actors to video games developers. That's more than the number of people in advanced manufacturing, financial services and construction.

And people in creative jobs tend to be happier. According to Nesta, most creative occupations have higher than average levels of life satisfaction, 'worthwhileness' and happiness than jobs in general - although most have higher average levels of anxiety too.

The bad news - and this will probably come as no surprise - is that creativity is no way to get rich. Indeed, the research found that the more creative a job is, the less it's likely to pay. Musicians, actors, dancers and artists tend only to scrape by, while people working in the more creative areas of technical, financial and legal jobs can generally do rather better.

It's a good strategy, therefore, to focus as much as you can on the social and creative aspects of your chosen field, says Joanie Courtney, senior vice president of market development at Monster.

"Though computers and robots are replacing some jobs, there are certain things they cannot replace. Emotional intelligence and soft skills are essential in today's economy, and furthermore crucial to the development of future technologies and careers," she says.

"As certain fields become outmoded, just as many have in the past, it's important to focus on building sectors that open up entire new professions. Additionally, as the Oxford study advises, workers who fear losing their jobs to automation should work on strengthening their creative and social skills to safeguard their necessity in the workforce."

Most replaceable jobs (University of Oxford):
Title examiners, abstractors and searchers
Hand sewers
Mathematical technicians
Insurance underwriters
Watch repairers
Cargo and freight agents
Tax preparers
Photographic process workers and processing machine operators
New accounts clerks

Least replaceable jobs
Recreational therapists
First-line supervisors of mechanics, installers and repairers
Emergency management directors
Mental health and substance abuse social workers
Occupational therapists
Orthotists and prosthetists
Healthcare social workers
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons
First-line supervisors of firefighting and prevention workers

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Automation, Jobs, and History
Automation, Jobs, and History