The jobs most impacted by previous waves of automation tended to be those consisting of repetitive, manual tasks. Think washing clothes, weaving and other blue collar jobs.
With Artificial Intelligence (AI) automation, we started talking about the impact of this technology on jobs with repetitive tasks of an analytical nature. Say, translation, radiology, or bookkeeping. That is, we started entering white collar jobs’ territory, where advanced education was no longer effective protection against automation.
Though, because AI works best when applied to well defined tasks, most of us might have thought that the impact of AI would be limited to very specific applications of a technical nature. White collar jobs of a more generic nature would be safe, especially those requiring someone to plan and organise how work gets done. Say, middle manager. I certainly held this thought on the back of my mind. But, boy, was I wrong!
A recent episode of “The Inquiry”, a programme on BBC World Service, looked at how AI is changing – and, even, replacing – managerial jobs. For instance, in minute 01:53, there is reference to a programme that selects freelance workers for different projects, and manages them throughout the process (e.g., allocating work, monitoring performance, etc…). And if, like me, you thought that, at the very least, managers would always be needed to handle difficult conversations with staff, you (and I) are wrong: apparently, some AI have better “emotional antennae than humans”, and can behave accordingly (e.g., deciding when and how to deliver bad news).
A paper by Mei Xue, Xing Cao, Xu Feng, Bin Gu and Yongjie Zhang analysed the relationship between the deployment of AI applications in publicly-traded companies in China on the one hand, and labour structure on the other, providing evidence of AI displacing white collar jobs. The paper is entitled “Is College Education Less Necessary with AI? Evidence from Firm-Level Labor Structure Changes“.
Namely, Xue and her team found that adoption of AI actually led to an increase in the overall size of the companies’ workforce. However, while the number of non-academically trained workers in those companies increased, the opposite happened for academically-trained workers. That is:
AI effectively lowers the skill requirements of jobs by undertaking the tasks that used to require knowledge or skills developed through college education. It does not necessarily raise the knowledge or skill requirement (…) It also does not generate demand for high-skill employees (e.g., professional work) while reducing the demand for middle-skill workers (e.g., manufacturing and routine office workers) and increasing the demand for low-skill workers (e.g., manual work and personal care).
The research team added that:
“Humans may not necessarily face a jobless future. But it is important to prepare for a transition or structural change of the labour force to work with AI side by side. Our finding shows the overall job posts may not change quantitatively in a negative way as many have feared. However, the qualitative aspect of the jobs will go through a complete overhaul”.
Are there any white-collar jobs safe?
According to the interviewees in “The Inquiry”, for the time being strategy jobs are safe. Imagining the future requires ingenuity and, so far, that is something that AI is not good at.
I have to say that hearing that radio programme on a day when I had mostly done definitely-non-ingenious tasks was not very reassuring at all.
Do you feel that AI is making your job better? How?