An article in the current C’t magazine drew my attention to a study (The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?) published in 2013 by economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne.

In the past, computerisation has killed jobs, but there have always been more jobs created overall, because new professions have been created as a result of new products springing up as a result of computerisation: computers, smartphones, GPS systems, the Internet etc. have all created jobs that previously didn’t exist and that were unimaginable before computers existed.

However, with increasingly powerful IT systems comes the ability to replace not only relatively unskilled, mundane jobs on production lines, but also many jobs which today provide work for the middle classes. Indeed, economists think that the reason for the increasing salary differential between top managers and normal employees that started in the 1980’s in the USA and Europe is caused by increasing use of computers in industry and commerce.

Frey and Osborne have evaluated over 700 professions and estimated the probability that it will be posible to replace human workers by computers. Their report (see link above) includes a table in the appendix ranking the professions by probability that they can be taken over by computers. They conclude:

According to our estimates around 47 percent of total US employment is in the high risk category. We refer to these as jobs at risk – i.e. jobs we expect could be automated relatively soon, perhaps over the next decade or two.

Other economists, such as Andrew McAfee at MIT predict that that the increasing inroads that computer systems are making on jobs will lead to an even starker polarisation of salaries – those jobs which computers can’t replace will be highly paid, the remainder will be badly paid. The middle classes will become an endangered species.

If you are a recreational therapist, a healthcare social worker, a computer system administrator or a dentist, you can be fairly sure your job is still going to be around in 20 years time. If you are a receptionist, a nuclear reactor operator, a paralegal, a butcher, or a bicycle repairer, you should probably think about re-training: it’s highly unlikely that your job will still be around in 20 years, and if it is, it will be badly paid due to the competition from computers.