Technology and job categories in decline
There is widespread concern that the spread of new artificial intelligence technologies could lead to substantial job losses in certain fields.
For example, why use a travel agency if you can make reservations online? Why use a financial planner if you can use software? Will software reduce the number of people hired as tax preparers? Will smart robots reduce the number of people who have a job moving stock in warehouses? What about fewer vendors needed because of scanners? Why ask a radiologist to review every x-ray, if a software scan turns out to be a much faster and more accurate way to do the first exam?
So what’s the proof? Are jobs tougher in areas that seem particularly sensitive to new technologies? Michael Handel of the Bureau of Labor Statistics collates data from 1999 through the pre-pandemic years, then examines projections to 2029, on the number of people employed in various job categories, in “Growth Trends for Selected Occupations considered to be at risk”. automation” (Monthly Labor Review, July 2022). He writes:
Recent advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) have generated even more interest than usual, and the scale and speed of these advances have raised the possibility of widespread job displacement in a near future. Many observers view these new technologies as fundamentally different from previous waves of computer technology. New computing capabilities – in areas such as image recognition, robotic manipulation, word processing, natural language processing and pattern recognition, and, more generally, the ability to learn and quickly improve in a relatively autonomous way – represent a departure from the hand-coded and rule-based programs of the past. From this perspective, new robots and AI represent a clear departure from previous waves of computing, which hastened the pace of technological change and job losses.
Handel creates a list of jobs that are generally considered already susceptible to changes in artificial intelligence, or may soon be. Here is the list of jobs and how the number of people employed in those jobs has changed.
In a number of cases, starting with financial advisers and interpreters at the top of the list, the number of workers in these categories appears to be increasing rather than decreasing. Apparently, in a number of cases, new technologies bring about changes in previous methods of performing a given job, but they do so in a way that complements and augments the ability of workers in this category to do their work – and therefore leads to an increase in the number of jobs, rather than a decrease. There are also counterexamples, such as employment declines in the categories of travel agents, computer programmers, telemarketers and welders. In these areas, new technologies seem to replace workers rather than complement them.
For centuries there have been fears that technology will destroy jobs. It would be more accurate to say that technology changes the composition of jobs. Since most workers gain expertise in a certain job and it can then be difficult or expensive to change jobs, technological changes will benefit some and harm others. Also, predicting in advance when technology will eventually augment jobs (apparently, financial advisers and interpreters) and when it will eventually replace jobs (apparently, computer programmers and travel agents) is complex and often not obvious in advance.
Handel also sorts out the 30 job categories that suffered the greatest losses in absolute numbers from 1999 to 2018. Many of these categories are not about changes in new artificial intelligence technologies, but about more fundamental changes from to the previous wave of computerization and automation, including jobs in data entry, word processing, switchboard operators and computer operators, and file clerks. However, it is worth remembering that while these job categories were staggered by losses, the total number of jobs in the United States increased by 17%.