• One-third of all jobs could be at risk of automation in the next decade.
  • People with low educational attainment are most at risk.
  • Previous waves of mechanization have caused difficulty and anxiety too.
  • Technology could create millions more jobs than it displaces.

Millions of people across the globe have lost their jobs to the COVID-19 crisis. In major economies like the US, some of those jobs have already been recovered, although “there is a long road ahead,” as Bank of America economist Michelle Meyer told The New York Times.

But for many people, the job they used to do might not be coming back. And increasingly, as employers battle with the challenges of the pandemic, this could be due to automation.

By the mid-2030s one-third of all jobs could face the risk of being automated, according to a report from PwC. The sector of the workforce most likely to be disrupted will be those people who have low educational attainment.

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Percentage of existing jobs at potential risk from automation.
Image: Pwc

Anxiety over job losses caused by the increased use of machinery has been around for hundreds of years. With each new development, someone has faced the prospect of their livelihood or quality of life being changed irrevocably.

16th-century stockings

In the 16th century, all labour was manual labour. Until a clergyman named William Lee hit upon an idea to mechanize – at least in part – the production of stockings. He adapted looms that were used in the manufacture of rugs to make a long sheet of stocking material, which could then be cut and stitched into stockings. It was far quicker and cheaper than the traditional method.

There is a legend that Lee’s request for a patent on his machine was rejected by Queen Elizabeth I, who was concerned for the welfare of former stocking knitters, who would end up out of work.

At the time, his machine had limited wider impact but became the basis of other textile machine developments.

19th-century textile riots

Hundreds of years later, English textile workers faced bigger changes. And they weren’t the only ones.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, people moved from rural communities into the new, fast-growing cities. There they found work in mills and factories, where steam-powered machines were driving unprecedented growth in output of items previously hand-crafted by artisan workers.

Farmworkers too faced the challenge of mechanization. Growing populations demanded more food, and that drove the adoption of machines to handle everything from sowing seeds to harvesting crops.

The reaction from working people was not uniformly positive. In the UK, a movement that became known as the Luddites struck back at the increased use of automation. They rioted, smashed machines and even set fire to business owners’ homes.

20th-century car manufacturing

The use of robots in vehicle manufacture became increasingly common in the latter part of the 20th century. Initially used to perform simple, repetitive tasks, they helped increase output, standardize production quality and keep costs under control.

In 1979, the Fiat motor company ran a TV ad showing the production of its Strada hatchback complete with the tagline “hand built by robots”.

Assembly-line tasks such as welding and spray-painting were among the first jobs to migrate from people to robots. But humans were on hand to supervise the machines. As the technology has improved, the range of jobs passed on to robots has expanded to cover more complex procedures, such as fixing windscreens into vehicles. They are also widely used to move heavy and bulky items through factories.

Automation and the future

According to many estimates, there will be more jobs created over the next few years than lost by automation.

The challenge facing world leaders and policy-makers in the wake of COVID-19 will be to ensure that people aren’t overlooked in the rush to rebuild economies

“COVID-19 has accelerated our transition into the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. “We have to make sure that the new technologies in the digital, biological and physical world remain human-centred and serve society as a whole, providing everyone with fair access.”