Study: 38 percent of US jobs automated by 2030s


JOSHUA DAUSENER, Copy Editor | [email protected]

An interesting but concerning report from PricewaterhouseCoopers released last week suggested 38 percent of US jobs will potentially be at a “high risk” of automation by the early 2030s. The fields and industries at the highest risk of near-term automation included manufacturing, transportation, storage and many more.

A recent study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment suggested that automation could replace 40 to 70 percent of current mine workers in the near future. Thirty-eight percent is just the 2030s projection. At some point, the vast majority of jobs will likely be automated.

The reports highlight an important but often overlooked reality; due to automation, at some point in the very-near future there will not be enough jobs to employ everybody who needs work. Physicist Stephen Hawking wrote in a column to The Guardian, “The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with the only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.”

Something that may be even more concerning than automation is the complete lack of societal planning for automation. I have seen newspaper and internet articles addressing automation, but nothing from those who make real policy decisions. Government and politicians do not seem to have any ideas for an automated future. None of the presidential candidates mentioned automation in any meaningful way during the primary and general campaigns.

There are two likely reasons for this. Many politicians do not know about the reality of automation yet (though they ought to), plus admitting that some jobs are gone and are never coming back is a terrible way to get people to vote for you.

The time to start thinking of solutions is now, not in two decades when potentially 1/3 of the population is unemployed. If we march to the 2030s without making substantial societal changes automation will be a disaster. There is absolutely no infrastructure in place to take place of the people who will find themselves out of work. Currently, there seem to be two major solution to the automation problem.

One suggestion is universal basic income (UBI). A UBI is a fixed income provided to all adult citizens by their home country, regardless of income or employment status.

A lot of different opinions for the details of American UBI exist, but the most common suggestions in terms of an amount are $10,000-$15,000 a year to each adult citizen.

Proponents argue that a UBI will keep people out of poverty after their jobs are automated, and will foster an outburst of creativity, research and entrepreneurship. The UBI is supposedly enough to keep people out of poverty, but low enough to incentive people to work the remaining jobs in society.

Opponents of UBI say that guaranteed income will disincentivize people to work. Opponents also note that a UBI program will be very expensive. Lastly, a UBI would be near-impossible to implement in the US. America cannot even provide healthcare and higher education to everyone who needs it; good luck with providing guaranteed, no-strings-attached cash.

Several countries are experimenting with UBI programs right now, so we should have some hard data to work with soon.

Another suggestion is machine assignment. The idea is that you are assigned a machine at birth, and you make an income roughly equivalent to that machine’s productivity throughout your life. For example, when I am born I am assigned a machine at a Ford factory in Detroit. The machine produces about $35,000 in goods each year, so I would make $35,000 a year. A robot is doing all of the work that you would otherwise be doing, but you reap all of the benefits and income.

Many unanswered questions remain. How would governments pay for a UBI? How do we incentivize people to continue working remaining jobs? What will people do with all of their newfound free time? Should some people make more money than others because the machine they were assigned at birth produces more valuable goods?

Automation brings many big questions that will have complicated answers. But we need to at least start having the conversation. Automation can bring about a utopian society, or an unprecedented disaster. Automation could be the most significant change in human life since the Neolithic Revolution.

The 2030s will be here very soon; most of us will be in our 30s at that point. A quote from George Will applies well to this situation, “The future has a way of arriving unannounced.”