The Workers Who Are Most Likely To Lose Their Jobs To Robots (#GotBitcoin?)
Factory workers and truck drivers have been the faces of the nation’s automation fears to date. And with good reason: Each occupation is a mainstay of middle-aged male work and genuinely threatened by robots or artificial intelligence (AI). The Workers Who Are Most Likely To Lose Their Jobs To Robots (#GotBitcoin?)
However, as the summer job season kicks off, our research at the Brookings Institution highlights a different demographic concern. By our calculations, no group faces higher vulnerability to automation and AI than young people–workers aged 16-24. And that’s a problem.
Early summer and postcollege jobs are a rite of passage for young people. Such jobs are pivotal moments when young people learn to engage in work and life as productive, participating adults.
Think of your first job. (Mine was at the Herfy’s burger chain in Seattle.) Along with the boredom and goofing around, working in an oftentimes dull and repetitive entry-level job, whether in retail or fast food, has remained one of the main ways American teens build workaday habits, learn how to show up, appreciate the value of a dollar. Even mundane early jobs have value as links to the world of work. Likewise, young people’s first jobs create important pathways to later work. Such experiences matter, and they matter especially for nonwhite, lower-income workers.
And yet, such jobs are now potentially threatened. To be sure, our recent study is not one of the most frightening of the automation analyses out there. It offers relatively encouraging overall assessments of workers’ exposure to workplace automation. In fact, our analysis shows that a bachelor’s degree will provide stability to many workers, given that only 8% of workers with such a credential face “high” disruption threats given present technology.
However, significant occupational, geographical and demographic variation lies beneath the relatively manageable aggregate figures and bears heavily on the job prospects of the young. For example, the sharp segmentation of the labor market by gender, age and race ensures that some demographic groups are much more concentrated than others in the kinds of low-paying, and repetitive work most susceptible to automation.
Most notably, we find that nearly half (49%) of the current work now being done by workers aged 16 to 24 could be automated through the adoption of current technologies. Specifically, nearly 30% of young workers are engaged in “high-risk” jobs with over 70% of their current tasks categorized as automatable. These figures are much higher than the exposure rates faced by prime-age workers.
What are these vulnerable jobs? You guessed it: Young workers’ inordinate exposure to automation stems from their heavy overrepresentation in the rote, highly automatable jobs associated with food preparation, retail and customer service, among others. Consider that young workers aged 16 to 24 make up slightly more than 9% of the national workforce but represent nearly 40% of cashiers and waitresses and nearly one-quarter of retail salespeople. And consider further that such jobs are now projected to see as much as 80% of their tasks replaced in the coming years by automatic ordering kiosks, swipe-based payment systems, robotic-dishwashing and the like.
That’s not to say all of these jobs will disappear. But it is to say that there may well be fewer of these mainstay jobs in the future and that they will become at once more precarious, more demanding and harder to land. Which underscores the problem here: With young people—especially those from underrepresented groups and poor families—already struggling with the school-to-work transition, as my colleague Martha Ross has documented, the spread of automation in retail, food service and customer-service jobs promises to make things harder. Or to put it another way: Automation and AI are going to increasingly complicate young workers’ search for work and a first connection to gainful employment.
So, how should young workers and others respond? One predictable bit of advice: Young people should go to college—and complete their degree. Doing so gives them a good shot at avoiding heavy reliance on these vulnerable roles.
Beyond that, parents, kids, young workers, high schools and colleges need to bear in mind that the already-difficult school-to-work transition may be getting harder as these entry-level jobs change or disappear. Amid that reality, young people, families, schools and community organizations all need to focus more on higher-quality alternatives to a restaurant or clothing-store job as the first step toward a satisfying work life.
However, this may be easier said than done. On this front, then, my colleague Martha Ross has laid out a solid array of ideas, ranging from “bridge programs” and job training for in-demand occupations to work-based learning opportunities like internships, apprenticeships and special certificates. Likewise, others focus on online “matching” platforms and job-placement programs.
The point, in any event, is that with food-prep and service employment looking less reliable, young workers and those trying to help them should begin to devise new plans for locating sound summer and early-career work.
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Monty H. & Carolyn A.Go back