Most Americans predict that within 50 years, robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans – but few workers expect their own jobs or professions to experience substantial impacts.
From self-driving vehicles and semi-autonomous robots to intelligent algorithms and predictive analytic tools, machines are increasingly capable of performing a wide range of jobs that have long been human domains. A 2013 study by researchers at Oxford University estimated that as many as 47 percent of all jobs in the United States are at risk of “computerization.” And many respondents in a recent Pew Research Center canvassing of technology experts predicted that advances in robotics and computing applications will result in a net displacement of jobs over the coming decades – with potentially profound implications for both workers and society as a whole.
The new reality?
The ultimate extent to which robots and algorithms intrude on the human workforce will depend on a host of factors, but many Americans expect that this shift will become reality over the next half-century. In a national survey by Pew Research Center conducted June 10-July 12, 2015, among 2,001 adults, fully 65 percent of Americans expect that within 50 years robots and computers will “definitely” or “probably” do much of the work currently done by humans.
Not in my cubicle
Yet even as many Americans expect that machines will take over a great deal of human employment, an even larger share (80 percent) expect that their own jobs or professions will remain largely unchanged and exist in their current forms 50 years from now. And although 11 percent of today’s workers are at least somewhat concerned that they might lose their jobs as a result of workforce automation, a larger number are occupied by more immediate worries – such as displacement by lower-paid human workers, broader industry trends or mismanagement by their employers.
In general, Americans of various demographic backgrounds have largely similar expectations regarding the future of automation. However, those under the age of 50 – as well as those with relatively high household incomes and levels of educational attainment – are a bit more skeptical than average about the likelihood of widespread workforce automation. Some 35 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds think it unlikely that robots and computers will do much of the work done by humans, compared with 27 percent of those ages 50 and older. And 37 percent of those with a college degree think that this outcome is unlikely (compared with 28 percent of those who have not attended college), as do 38 percent of Americans with an annual household income of $75,000 or more (compared with 27 percent of those with an annual household income of less than $30,000 per year).
When asked about a number of issues that might cause them to lose their current jobs, just 11 percent of workers are at least somewhat concerned that they might lose their jobs because their employer replaces human workers with machines or computer programs. On the other hand, roughly one in five express concern that they might lose their jobs because their employer finds other (human) workers to perform their jobs for less money or because their overall industry workforce is shrinking. The most prominent concern is poor management by their own employer, albeit by a narrow margin, among the five evaluated in this survey:
• 26 percent of workers are concerned that they might lose their current jobs because the company they work for is poorly managed.
• 22 percent are concerned about losing their jobs because their overall industry is shrinking.
• 20 percent are concerned that their employer might find someone who is willing to do their jobs for less money.
• 13 percent are concerned that they won’t be able to keep up with the technical skills needed to stay competitive in their jobs.
• 11 percent are concerned that their employer might use machines or computer programs to replace human workers.
Manual labor worries
Workers whose jobs involve primarily manual or physical labor express heightened concern about all of these potential employment threats, especially when it comes to replacement by robots or other machines. Fully 17 percent of these workers are at least somewhat concerned about the threat from workforce automation, with 11 percent indicating that they are “very concerned.” By contrast, just five percent of workers whose jobs do not involve manual labor express some level of concern about the threat of workforce automation.