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Report: Technology to claim 5m jobs by 2020

Cheap labour: robots work on a Fiat Chrysler production line in Warren, Michigan

Jena McGregor

The World Economic Forum took place last week and the theme of this year’s gathering of the world’s leaders, celebrities, billionaires and the merely wealthy will be what it calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. That’s its term for the accelerating pace of technological changes, especially those that are “blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres” — the combination of things such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and 3-D printing.

To go with that theme, the WEF has released research looking at the effect all that change will have on jobs. It projects that by 2020, 7.1 million jobs are expected to be lost versus just 2 million gained. “Davos robot eclipses Davos man as gloom descends on world elite,” Bloomberg wrote in covering the news of this year’s theme, which will be the topic of 20 sessions over the four-day conference. The WEF said in a statement while releasing the report: “These predictions are likely to be relatively conservative and leave no room for complacency.”


The dreary news is hardly unfamiliar, however, as the pending wave of tech disruption prompts study after study on the massive impact robotics and artificial intelligence are expected to have on jobs. Oxford University researchers famously found that an estimated 47 per cent of US jobs could be taken by robots in the next two decades. Nearly half of industry experts and tech enthusiasts, according to a Pew Research Centre study, believe robots will displace many jobs and lead to “vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order”.

And even among those who think the immediate number of jobs that are actually lost will be small, the disruption to how individual jobs are done could be enormous, with positions all the way up to the chief executive experiencing change, according to a recent McKinsey report.

But what’s interesting about the WEF’s latest round of gloomy numbers is that it also shows what a potentially outsize impact these changes could have on women’s jobs, in particular. A whopping two-thirds of those 5 million lost jobs are expected to come from office and administrative roles, where women are especially well-represented. While the traditionally male-dominated manufacturing and production industries are also expected to be sharply hit, resulting in a similar overall burden in job losses on men and women, the gender gap in jobs could still worsen, the WEF reports.

Here’s why. Women already make up a smaller share of the workforce, for one. The report states that in absolute terms, men will face about three jobs lost for every job gained, whereas women will face more than five jobs lost for each job added.

Combine that with how many new jobs are in the traditionally male-dominated science, tech and engineering fields, and the prediction is even more troubling. If current gender-gap ratios persist in the STEM fields between 2015 and 2020, there’s projected to be nearly one new STEM job for every four jobs lost for men — but only one new STEM job for every 20 jobs lost for women, the WEF reports.

In its “Future of Jobs” report, the WEF finds that things such as advanced robotics, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and “machine learning” will affect industries and business models as soon as 2018.

For those without a tech background, however, there is some good news in the report. Yes, it projects that more than a third of the skills that will be most desirable by 2020 aren’t even considered important today, illustrating the rapid pace of change the world is confronting.

But it also says the world will need people to lead. Management jobs have one of the most positive net-employment outlooks in the report. And social skills such as persuasion and emotional intelligence are expected to be in even higher demand across industries than more limited technical skills. So are creativity, active listening and critical thinking.

The future, in other words, may sound a little gloomy. But maybe the workplace will be a little nicer place to be, too.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for The Washington Post.