The Future of Work Part 4: The Kinds Of Jobs That Are At Risk

Recent improvements in hardware, a massive increase in the number of processors available, and new math tools have increased concerns that computers may soon replace millions of workers. The shorthand for this is Artificial Intelligence, although the term seems like hyperbole considering the kinds of things computers can do at present. The Obama White House issued a paper on this issue, Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy, which can be found here. It cites two studies of the impact of AI on automation over then next 10 years or so. One, by the OECD, estimates about 9% of US jobs may be lost to automation. The other is a more interesting 2013 paper by two professors at Oxford, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, estimating that as many as 49% of US jobs could be lost or seriously affected over 10 or so years.

The Frey-Osborne Paper is here. Frey is a professor in a public policy college, and Osborne is in the engineering college; they aren’t economists. Perhaps for that reason, the introductory sections are instructive on the history of technological change and some of its effects on society. The technical approach of the Frey-Osborne Paper is to identify the bottlenecks that make it difficult to automate the tasks needed in a specific job. They use machine learning to identify patterns in the skills needed by specific jobs.

The authors identify three main bottlenecks to automation:

1. Tasks requiring perception and manipulation. P. 24
2. Tasks requiring creative intelligence. P. 25
3. Tasks requiring social intelligence. P. 26

The O-NET database of jobs is managed by the US Department of Labor. The current version contains detailed descriptions of job tasks for 903 occupations. Here are the top eight tasks of 21 listed for forest firefighter, one of the bright future jobs according to O-NET,:

Rescue fire victims, and administer emergency medical aid.

Establish water supplies, connect hoses, and direct water onto fires.

Patrol burned areas after fires to locate and eliminate hot spots that may restart fires.

Inform and educate the public about fire prevention.

Participate in physical training to maintain high levels of physical fitness.

Orient self in relation to fire, using compass and map, and collect supplies and equipment dropped by parachute.

Fell trees, cut and clear brush, and dig trenches to create firelines, using axes, chainsaws or shovels.

Maintain knowledge of current firefighting practices by participating in drills and by attending seminars, conventions, and conferences.

Frey and Osborne describe their methodology as follows:

First, together with a group of [machine learning] researchers, we subjectively hand-labelled 70 occupations, assigning 1 if automatable, and 0 if not. For our subjective assessments, we draw upon a workshop held at the Oxford University Engineering Sciences Department, examining the automatability of a wide range of tasks. Our label assignments were based on eyeballing the O-NET tasks and job description of each occupation.

They identified nine variables related to the three bottlenecks and assigned levels of difficulty of the variables in carrying out each task, high, medium, or low. Then they verified their data, and used it as training data in a machine learning program. The paper gives a description of the way they prepared and ran the rest of the O-NET data through the trained machine to estimate the likelihood that each job would be automated over the next 10 years or so. They produced a chart showing the likely effects of AI on categories of jobs. The following chart shows the results of their work.

The authors say that large numbers of transportation and logistics workers, office workers and administrative support workers are at risk. They also think many service workers are at risk as robots become more efficient. They think people whose jobs require great manual dexterity and perception, or high levels of creativity, or strong social intelligence are reasonably safe in the near term. They assert that low-skill workers will have to move to jobs in the service sector that require these skills, and will have to sharpen their own through training and education.

There have been several articles on this issue lately. This one by Reuters says that investors think the future is in automation. Since the election shares in companies working in that area are up dramatically as is an ETF in the sector. Reuters says that this means that investors think that Trump’s assertion he will increase jobs in the manufacturing sector will not happen. Instead, as the cost of advanced technology drops labor becomes expendable. Any increase in manufacturing will have little effect on overall unemployment, as displaced workers move to other jobs with the same employers doing “value-added” tasks.

Matthew Yglesias goes a step farther in this 2015 post at Vox. He says the big problem in job growth in the US is the lack of increase in productivity due to inadequate automation. He thinks rising productivity is essential to higher wages, or more likely a reduction in the time spent working. Yglesias lays out the case for not worrying. He ignores, as all economists do, the possibility that the returns from work might be shared more equitably between capital and labor. His relentless optimism contrasts with the lived experience of millions of Americans, the real lives that gave us Trumpism.

I wonder what Yglesias makes of this article in the Guardian discussing the efforts of the billionaire Ray Dalio to create software to manage the day-to-day operations of the world’s largest hedge fund in accordance with “… a set of principles laid out by Dalio about the company vision.” The article provides a more pessimistic view of the future even for management work.

I don’t have an opinion about these forecasts or the reasoning behind them. Yglesias says people will work less, but doesn’t explain how workers who have no bargaining power will be able to increase their income enough to have free time. Dalio must think that he is so wise that his AI automaton will replicate his success forever, and that his competitors won’t take advantage of the rigidity of his principles.

Suppose that the investors described by Reuters are right, that manufacturing increases but without increased employment in the sector. What will all those Trump voters do next? Change their minds about what they want from the economy and the government that fosters it, and live happily ever after?

I think both Yglesias and Dalio are so steeped in neoliberal economics with its model of human beings as Homo Economicus that they assume these changes will come about smoothly. Nothing else will change; there are no dynamic tipping points. No large number of human beings will raise hell. There will be no feedback effects. The displaced of all ages will just retrain to some other job and/or resign themselves to their reduced lives. They won’t resist, or riot, or insist on government protection, or demand a completely new system. Investment bankers will blandly accept the judgment of computers as to their value and will not insist on being treated like superstars even if the machine says they are just gas giants.

Yglesias and Dalio are wrong. That is precisely what history says won’t happen.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

20 replies
  1. Anon says:

    To put it another, more basic way, what kind of market can you really have when 9 – 49% of your population is un- or underemployed? The problem is that this kind of market deficit puts that same automation at risk by undercutting the very market for the automated goods. At that point the automation becomes a self-eating concept.

  2. bevin says:

    There was a time when humanity would have sighed, collectively, in relief at the news that the need to work long hours to produce the essentials of life was passing.

    Only the irrationality of capitalist society makes the approach of sufficiency and an age of leisure appear to be a problem.

    A very curious consummation for a society which spent two centuries jeering at the Luddites.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Financial capital does not acknowledge the idea of sufficient profit.  It does recognize the sufficiently predatory, and punishes its absence.  It is an ide0logy, more a religion, dependent on dehumanization in order to justify its proponents’ greed.  It is old wine in new bottles.  An earlier version called itself social Darwinism, itself a contradiction in terms used by Robber Baron courtiers to justify their patrons’ predation and brutal selfishness.  Both reinterpret virulent social pathologies as the behavior of gods.  Reformation seems in order.  But gods do not give up their pedestals lightly.

      • Ed Walker says:

        It is astonishing that the massive increase in the share of profits going to capital has risen so high with no discussion from mainstream economists, and no suggestion that maybe that should be changed. For those interested in this point, see this from Fred:

        I read it to show a decline in the labor share since a peak in 1960. I read that by looking at the peaks following recessions. Over this nearly 60 year period, each peak is lower.

        I’d call that proof of your point.

        • N says:

          Oddly enough it has been discussed in public, but not as a problem. I read an article, in WaPo I believe, about Trump’s order to rescind the Fiduciary Interest rule and Dodd Fank that stated, without comment, that bank profits were 30% of the economy before Dodd Frank and are now “only” 15%. This was presented as a background fact with no assessment or explanation, much in the same way you might say that yesterday was Tuesday.

    • Don Bacon says:

      It seems to me that the problem is not a capitalist society, it is the industrialization of citizens, their subordination to mere articles of production. It starts in the schools with “sit down and shut up” and “give me the school solution.” This amounts to a general stifling of creativity which makes it difficult for the general population to perform tasks requiring perception and manipulation,  creative intelligence and  social intelligence (from above). IOW people are insufficiently inclined to think for themselves and to devise new ways to make a living in a rapidly changing world. In this respect, I believe, people in less-developed countries (Africa, say) are better able to make  it on their own.

      • Ed Walker says:

        I tend to agree with this. Of course, the elites, including the upper middle class in income, see to it that their children are not treated like this. That is what makes DeVos so dangerous. For-profit charter schools almost all teach to the test, insuring the outcome you suggest. One ugly side effect is that we learn to learn in a good school. If we don’t, we reduce the ability of the child to retrain as an adult.

        • Don Bacon says:

          And the principal motivator for teaching to the test is the federal Department of Education, so abolish it. Allow parents in each locality decide (via school committees) how their children are educated.

          And what is true education? Educar: To draw out. Using Howard Gardner’s Seven Intelligences and other guides, tailor education in large part (after the basics are taught) to the child’s development recognizing that each young person is unique and has an innate capability to adapt and create. He or she is not simply a receptacle for determined knowledge.

          That’s the way to adapt to the changes which are certainly coming. For one example, my son is a computer programmer and he just found a position on a project to automate long-haul trucks. There’s a million guys (and some gals) who may need another career field if they can pull this off. These former drivers better have some ideas in their heads of how to make a buck.

          • John Casper says:


            You wrote: “Allow parents in each locality decide (via school committees) how their children are educated.”

            You’re opposed to English as our national language?

            Without a federal department of education, who decides what the “basics” are?

            What if a “locality” wants to teach the earth is flat, because it’s in the Bible?

            Should we abolish the Defense Department, give the states responsibility for national defense?

        • Piraeus says:

          “For-profit charter schools almost all teach to the test”

          Is that so? I have three daughters in a charter school in Texas. It is far less obsessed with their performance on standardized tests than their previous neighborhood public school. And this makes sense given the connection between the test performance of territorial schools and the property value of the homes in school’s territory. Charter schools, on the other hand, are not subject to those pressures.

          • John Casper says:


            “Is that so?”

            So this about Texas’ “State System Safeguards” is wrong?

            “System safeguards were established to meet state accountability-related intervention requirements. The purpose of the system safeguard report is to ensure that—in an aggregated district or campus report— substandard performance in one or more areas or by one or more student groups is not disguised by higher performance in other areas or by other student groups. To accomplish this, performance measures are disaggregated to show the results of each student subgroup on each of the indicators, highlighting any subgroup or area in which there was substandard performance. System safeguards report student performance, participation rates, and graduation rates.

            Safeguard measures are calculated and reported (along with the safeguard targets) for performance on STAAR (all five subject areas), participation on STAAR (reading and mathematics only), and graduation rates (four-year and five-year graduation rates). The results are reported by student group: all students, African American, American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, White, and two or more races, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and English language learners (ELLs).

            Statewide, of the 55 STAAR performance indicators (five subject areas for each of the 11 student groups) evaluated for system safeguards, 47 (85%) met the state target of 60% that corresponds to the target for Index 1. All 22 of the STAAR participation indicators (two subject areas for each of the 11 student groups) met the participation target of 95%.

            Of the 11 student groups evaluated against the system safeguards for graduation rates, seven (64%) either met the graduation-rate target of 88% for the four-year cohort, met the target of 90% for the five-year cohort, or demonstrated sufficient improvement to achieve the goal of 90%.” 


            What’s the name of your daughters’ new school?

            What’s the name of their old school?

            How “obsessed” was their old school? What metrics did you use to gauge the level of obsession between both?

      • Bob In Portland says:

        If there is no need for workhouses, then there is no need for excess humanity.

        War, disease (invented or otherwise), starvation.

        Not to throw shade on the sliding of humanity into the abyss, but our track record is there to see.

  3. John Casper says:


    What did Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, mean by “the division of labor?”

    Do you think Trump’s Sec. of Education, Betsy DeVoss, agrees with you about “It starts in the schools with ‘sit down and shut up’ and ‘give me the school solution?’”

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