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Automation is now threatening office jobs as well

What has been a fact of life in the manufacturing industry for decades is now making itself felt in office jobs: Over the next five years, robots might make up to five million office jobs industrialized countries of the OECD obsolete. These numbers are based on a study published shortly before this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, for which more than 300 world leading corporations were interviewed.


According to them, the continuous automation of office work, called “Industry 4.0”, is in full swing. If you add other areas of work, like hotel receptions, the number of lost jobs could go up to seven million. After the area of blue collar jobs where the development has reached a high level of automation already, it has now reached the white collars as well. While new jobs will be created over the five year period as well, they are expected to be mostly for roughly two million highly trained IT staff.


Germany will be especially affected by this change, more than other European nations, and because the loss of jobs is expected to occur mostly in administrations, women would be more heavily hit than men, given the gender prevalence in the various job areas. In the so-called STEM areas, where men are still the majority, expectations are that jobs are still being added. Secretary jobs, bookkeeping, receptions and similar, however, will be disproportionally affected by the loss of jobs. Women are in the majority there, at least when looking at the operational levels, without management responsibility. HR is another area expected to affected, as specialized software for potential analysis, assessment center via remote and internet interface could potentially replace part of the workers in personnel recruiting and personnel development.


On one hand the digital revolution makes life easier for a lot of people, for example when robots help in nursing homes or as helpers in the household, but on the other hand, even those jobs that until recently were seen as secure are now more and more in jeopardy, and that in all industries. Whether this will mean a time of high unemployment rate is hard to predict, since nearly all industrialized nations at the same time have to content with shrinking populations, meaning fewer young workers will be lining up looking for jobs in the future. In Germany that mean that in 2015 tens of thousands of openings for vocation training could not be filled. Thousands of nursing staff are still desperately needed to fill openings in hospitals and nursing homes. In the latter case, automation might actually offer a solution to the demographic changes which cannot nearly be assuaged by even strong immigration. That the difference in income levels between those doing job requiring little to no qualifications and those whose jobs cannot be done by machines will increase is almost certain, though. Women working part-time will likely suffer the most.


It is expected that different industries will be affected to a different degree. The prospects are especially dire for workers in the health sector, the energy and finance sector. As can be expected, job growth is expected, in contrast, in the IT sector, where new digital technologies are conceived and developed. Robotics, 3D printing, nano technology, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and mobile internet are seen as fields with high potential. However, there are great local differences around the globe. While Europe and North America have to prepare for a decline of jobs in those areas, with the exception of Britain and Turkey, the numbers are expected to rise in the ASEAN states and emerging nations like Mexico. Nations with fast growing economies, which are still working to catch up with the historic industrialized nations of the “first world” do possess a kind of buffer and are still unable to make widespread use of automation. In addition, labor cost tends to be lower there than in modern welfare states like Germany.


Continued training of those employees threatened by job loss can help prevent unemployment. Industrialized nations should also come up with strategies to reduce work hours, make jobs more flexible by using tools like home office, and develop differentiated approaches for retirement. Often discussed in this context is the so-called “Flexi-Rente”, taking a step away from strict rules tying retirement to a specific age. However, the unions’ strategy to distribute a sinking volume of work between more workers will not work for long, though.


The above describe scenario of a massive loss of jobs is not widely accepted, though. Pessimists have long expected that robots and other machines will take over tasks so far done by humans. So far, though, the predicted widespread use has not become reality. In the past increasing productivity and human creativity have created new jobs: new business models where people can find work. Flexible and creative work will need to be done by humans in the future, too, while routine tasks will be done by machines. It is always easier to predict which jobs will be threatened by a new technology than to predict what new jobs and professions might be created.

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Herr Daniel Stock d.stock(@)top-jobs-europe.de