The future of work and how it will change our lives
Far from making humans obsolete, increasing automation could create millions of new jobs and free global workers to be more productive and happier
IN 2021, GLOBAL ROBOT USE in manufacturing stood at 126 robots per 10,000 employees — nearly twice the ratio in 2015.1 If that sounds like the prelude to a science fiction saga of machines rendering humans obsolete, the fact is that automation is creating millions of new jobs and boosting global productivity, the BofA Global Research report “Robo Sapiens: Future of Work Primer” suggests.2
“The World Economic Forum has estimated that even as technology eliminates 85 million jobs by 2025, it will create 97 million new ones3,” says Haim Israel, head of Global Thematic Investing Research at BofA Global Research and a co-author of the BofA report.2 “That’s a net increase of 12 million jobs worldwide.” In other words, while the pitched battle between robots and humans makes for a good storyline, “It turns out, we’re on the same team.”
“The World Economic Forum estimates that even as technology eliminates 85 million jobs by 2025, it will create 97 million new ones.”— head of Global Thematic Investing Research for Bank of America Global Research
Not that the transformation will be easy or automatic. “The decade ahead will see unprecedented change in the world of work, as the tech disruption gathers pace,” says Felix Tran, equity strategist for BofA Global Research and a co-author of the report.2 About 1 billion people worldwide will need new training and skills.6 Yet those able to make the transition may find greater work opportunities and job flexibility than ever before. That’s good news for workers and investors. “Companies and industries supporting this jobs transformation represent a combined $14 trillion in market capitalization,” Tran says.2
What will the new workplace look like?
Even as robots take over more tasks traditionally performed by humans, automation is creating new fields and occupations. “By one estimate, eighty-five percent of children starting school today will work in jobs that have not been invented yet,” Tran says.4 Some might spend their days as nanomedicine surgeons. Others could guide tourists in space, mine the moon or devise great recipes for food generated by 3D printers.
More immediately, the traditional white-collar, blue-collar world is giving way to a new range of jobs. There is a burgeoning “care economy” of doctors, psychologists, nurses, home care workers and educators that straddles various categories. “Health and well-being-related professions will account for some of the fastest-growing American jobs in the 2020s,” Tran says. The empathy skills needed for such professions are not easily automated, and their services are projected to be in high demand as the population ages. Green-collar workers — solar engineers, wind technicians, battery technicians and more — will likewise also be in rising demand throughout the 2020s as a result of increasing interest in cleantech.
“By one estimate, eighty-five percent of children starting school today will work in jobs that have not been invented yet.”— equity strategist for BofA Global Research
What sectors will likely benefit?
That emerging pink- and green-collar economy will likely favor sectors such as technology, medical technology and industrials, Israel notes. Other likely beneficiaries include communication services, financial services and utilities. “We also see opportunities in education and for those who ‘upskill’ or retrain workers,” he says. Industries that have had to adapt as more people work remotely include commercial real estate and traditional transportation companies.
How will today’s workers adapt to these changes?
According to one study, more than 100 million workers in eight countries (including the United States) may need to switch occupations by 2030.5 Technology skills should experience higher demand than data input and processing skills or physical and manual labor. Some occupations, meanwhile, appear to be relatively automation-proof. People working in education, for example, have just a 27% chance of being replaced by machines, with those working in support roles likely to be at greater risk than teachers.7
At the same time, humans will likely enjoy a new level of flexibility in the work they do and how they structure their days as a result of automation. The projected changes are a continuation of the impact automation has had on workers’ lives throughout history. For example, in the 19th century, workers put in the equivalent of 60 to 70 hours per week, 50 weeks per year8, notes Tran. Today’s workers log roughly half that time as new technology has increased productivity and freed many to work where and when they want. “Already, the 9-to-5 routine is starting to look dated,” he says. Today, an estimated 36% of the working age population in the United States and Europe is engaged in freelance or “gig” work.9 While job insecurity and lack of worker rights can make gig life precarious, some like the ability that gig work gives them to control their own schedules.
What are the greatest challenges ahead?
Despite the larger number of jobs automation will create, its disruptions present some serious risks, Israel notes. “Twentieth-century education practices have not kept up with the rapidly changing 21st century workplace,” Israel says.
Preparing workers and avoiding widespread unemployment will require a concerted mix of lifelong learning, corporate training and development, vocational education and massive open online courses (MOOCs), he notes. Governments will need to play a pivotal role in education and training, ongoing funding and support for individuals and families, especially in vulnerable communities, Israel adds.
Success could mean not just a more prosperous world in which to work, but one with a greater opportunity to relax. Says Tran, “if automation helps free workers from mundane and repetitive tasks, the future of work might tilt toward more leisure time.”
1 International Federation of Robotics, “2021 World Robot Report,” December 14, 2021
2 BofA Global Research, “Robo Sapiens: Future of Work Primer,” May 24, 2021
3 World Economic Forum, “The Future of Jobs 2020,” October 2020
4 Dell Technologies, “Realizing 2030,” September 2019
5 McKinsey & Company, “The Future of Work After COVID-19,” February 18, 2021
6 World Economic Forum, “We Need a Global Reskilling Revolution,” January 2, 2020
7 McKinsey & Company, “Where machines could replace humans – and where they can’t (yet),” July 2016
8 World Economic Forum, “This is how working hours have changed over time,” May 18, 2018
9 Upwork, “Freelance Forward Economist Report,” 2021
Opinions are as of the date of this article 11/8/2022 and are subject to change.
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