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Job loss predictions – easy to make, hard to trust

Principal Advisor, Productivity Commission
13 May 2019

This graphic caught my eye. It accompanies the article Robots and Us in today’s Otago Daily Times. 

Things look pretty dire for accountants and auditors – 94% of jobs automated within five years. Time to start night classes and retrain. Becoming a software developer looks a safe bet – only 4% of jobs will be automated. But hang on a minute, don’t they do the same job as computer programmers? And 48% of their jobs will be automated away. Is it 4% or 48%? Should you trust these numbers?

In case this was a typo, I checked the source – willrobotstakemyjob.com. Here are the computer and software jobs it lists:

Job loss predictions

I can think of no reason for the wide dispersion. These jobs share core skills, and indeed people often move between them over the course of their careers.

What about truck drivers? 79% of those jobs automated by 2024! Four of five jobs will go – and with them approx. four of five trucks. This prediction may face a few minor snags … no doubt easily overcome. As at 2019, you can’t buy an autonomous truck. To my knowledge, they are yet to roam the open roads. Nor are there any factories to produce them. And no country has the legal and regulatory systems in place to handle safety certification, licensing and liability. Let’s be super optimistic and assume those snags could be overcome in three years. That leaves just two years for those newly constructed factories to produce enough autonomous trucks to replace 80% of those currently on the road. And they will need to sell at a price attractive enough that current truck owners are happy to junk most of their existing fleet. I’d say the chance of all these things coming together by 2024 is vanishingly small.

willrobotstakemyjob.com says its analysis is based on the 2013 Frey and Osborne report The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? The methodology in that paper underpins many, if not most, of the job loss predictions currently doing the rounds. This methodology uses attributes of the job itself while ignoring wider demand for the outputs of those jobs. The breakneck automation of trucking, accountancy etc. cannot happen without, believe it or not, substantial numbers of computer and software professionals. So those professions will likely expand rather than contract, notwithstanding their susceptibility to automation.

Predictions are easy to make. And scary predictions are more likely to be published. Should you take these ones seriously? For me, they fail two tests – consistency and plausibility.. Then again, I’m an economist. And there’s a 43% chance of a robot taking my job within 5 years…

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  • Gravatar for Russell du Plessis

    Russell du Plessis 10 Jun 2019, 20:46 (5 months ago)

    Some really interesting comments here. So glad I found this blog.

    I'm an accountant and can see automation happening at a rapid pace in my industry. I work for a few clients and do all my own processing - something that, without a few bookkeepers would have been impossible a few years ago.

    I saw the increased levels of automation coming and had to make a choice: be automated out of a job or become the orchestrator of the automation processes.

    YouTube has become my new learning experience...the changes are happening so fast that mainstream classroom / webinar education will not keep one up to date.

    I hear the arguments that there are no self-driving trucks but my experience is that the time frames for implementation of new innovations have shrunk significantly - the discovery of software that I have been searching for or finding a data-validation solution on YouTube makes means that my processing and reporting solutions can move forward in leaps and bounds.

    Upon reflection I think it is that fact that I can take software that has already been developed and string them into a process makes the development of the solution a lot faster. I just have to design the process and then find the tools that can make it happen.

    Previously each part of the solution would have been built from scratch. An analogy is the time taken to manually make a bed cover - either manually weave one from scratch or make a quilt using patchwork...the latter is much faster and uses parts made previously by others.

    The speed of change is exponential rather than linear ....and my worry is that as a society we will be caught off-guard by the speed of transformation.

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    • Gravatar for Editor

      Editor 12 Jun 2019, 08:41 (5 months ago)

      Thank you for sharing your front line experience Russell. On innovation time frames, I think your comment points towards a distinction between purely software innovations that can build on existing (soft and hard) infrastructure, vs. innovations that require the wholesale replacement of existing or the creation of new infrastructure. While adoption rates for the former have become (sometimes scarily) fast, this is not necessarily the case for the later case.

      Anything that involves replacing vehicles, roads, houses, commercial buildings etc. faces the problem that we have large productive stocks of those assets. At current replacement rates, conversion will likely take decades. And speeding up replacement requires both the expansion of construction/production capacity and shortening the productive life of existing stocks, both of which are costly.

  • Gravatar for Greg van Paassen

    Greg van Paassen 28 May 2019, 18:39 (6 months ago)

    Yes, it's amazing how a little critical thinking provides a reality check on predictions like these.
    I don't know how Frey and Osborne kept _their_ jobs after creating that slipshod rubbish. A proper fisking of their "study" is well overdue.

    But they're not the only uncritical believers. McAfee and Brynjolfsson are probably worse, as is anyone who witters on about blockchain and/or crypto "currencies", and how either or both will take over the world - also by 2024, if the promoters are to be believed.

    By the way, kudos to the Commission for not mentioning the word "blockchain" anywhere in the "Innovation and Future of Work" Issues paper. Well done!

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    • Gravatar for Editor

      Editor 12 Jun 2019, 08:28 (5 months ago)

      Thanks for your comments Greg. I agree that blockchain is at the peak of the hype cycle, where otherwise sensible people seem to believe it can slice bread and create world peace. At the risk of drawing their ire, a more considered view is that blockchains are expensive by design as otherwise the ledgers they secure can be tampered with. This severely limits their practical application, as (a) they need to be performing a valuable purpose; and (b) they need to be cheaper than the next best option (eg, a centralised database with a trusted operator). They also do little to solve the wider contractual and governance issues of any distributed system. On that topic see: Howell, Bronwyn E. and Potgieter, Petrus H. and Sadowski, Bert M., Governance of Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology Projects (February 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3365519 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3365519. Cheers, Dave

  • Gravatar for Abinesh Krishan

    Abinesh Krishan 16 May 2019, 09:44 (6 months ago)

    Thanks for your insights into these predictions. With the mainstreaming of these outlandish predictions, it becomes more prudent for these to be called out. No doubt we are in the midst of some exciting exponential changes and jobs will change as a result as they have since time immemorial. Let’s embrace these changes and better create a future for everyone through targeted reskilling and retraining so that no one is left behind. Let that be our legacy to future generations yet to come. #nooneleftbehind

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