The Robots are Coming

Introduction

As a parent of young kids, I believe we have to keep an eye on the job market. Not because we choose what our kids will do, but because we help to guide what they study and how they develop their own goals. The job market is not going to be the same as it was when we graduated high school or University, so the advice our parents gave us (and the advice we might naturally give our kids) will not have the same relevance.

The number of studies predicting that a huge range of skills will be replaced by robots, and that a huge number of jobs will disappear, are growing every day. For young kids like mine, that means there is time to see what happens. Hopefully we can witness the technology revolution and hopefully, in 10-15 years from now, the landscape will be easier to assess. For kids finishing high school and entering University now, the picture can be exciting or bleak, depending on what you read.

Studies

In April 2015, PWC in Australia published a report entitled ‘Future-proofing Australia’s workforce by growing skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)’. It predicted that 44% of current jobs in Australia are at high risk of becoming redundant due to automation. Jobs at high risk are defined as having a 70% or above chance of being automated in the next 20 years. Admin workers, accounting clerks, sales assistants and even real estate agents make the list. Jobs with the least risk included medical practitioners, advertising and PR managers, and ICT security.

In January 2017, McKinsey released a similar report except this one looked at 45 countries and 80% of the world’s workers. Rather than looking at which jobs can be replaced, this study looked at the actual tasks being performed. It found that 49% of the activities people currently do can be automated with ‘currently demonstrated technology’.

The good news is that very few roles can be fully automated. However, in up to 60% of jobs 30% of the tasks can be replaced by machines – with technology available today.

Now the Financial Times (UK) has created an interactive calculator to help you figure out which part of your job can be automated. It is based on the McKinsey Global Institute’s data on 820 occupations covering 2,000 activities, and 18 capabilities needed to perform each activity.

So, if you are a retail sales person, the calculator will tell you that your job includes ‘greeting customers’ and ‘demonstrating product features’. Greeting customers requires ‘sensory perception’ and ‘natural language generation’ – two functions better performed by a human. For now.

What to do

As an ex-lawyer, I obviously have a view on whether I would suggest my kids study law. It is a great degree and good occupation, but I don’t think it is a great life for many lawyers (simply because for many it isn’t a life of passion, creation or excitement plus the long hours make it a well-paid grind). Natalie might disagree. She works as a lawyer for one of the world’s leading film studios.

Regardless, my concern over law isn’t about the traditional profession. It is about technology. ‘LawTech’ includes a range of businesses building AI machines to replace basic research and due diligence previously performed by junior lawyers. A study by Deloitte found that in the UK, up to 114,000 legal jobs could be replaced in the next 20 years.

I can relate to this. As a junior lawyer, my firm was paid $300-400 / hour while I sat in a room sifting through email correspondence looking for incriminating messages on a specific topic. I was also paid to check through various state legislation to compare how each state code applied to a specific issue. This type of work is now easy for a computer program.

All of this means that our kids are at risk of studying for professions which are about to be significantly disrupted by technology. If parents are not talking to their kids about this, we are doing them a disservice.

In my opinion, there are two things we can do:

  1. Be aware of the jobs that are growing in demand or not likely to be automated (reports like those cited above help to list examples).
  2. Understand that technology skills, when coupled with a traditional skill-set, will become invaluable. For example, the lawyer who understands data science will be able to help his or her company build and manage their own AI engines.

This starts with encouraging kids around maths and science. In my case, I was fine with arithmetic throughout high school, but by the time I got to the final two years of high school I had lost my confidence and was pushing myself towards social science – history, politics etc. Confidence is critical when it comes to numbers and if predictions about technology (including the prevalence of coding and data science) are right, one of the most important things we can do as parents is make sure maths is supported and enjoyed at home. It may well provide the building blocks for our kids to be able to compete in the future. With robots.

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