Skilled and unskilled workers alike are in trouble. Those with a better education are still more likely to find work, but there is now a fair chance that it will be unenjoyable. Those who never made it to college face being squeezed out of the workforce altogether. This is the argument of the techno-pessimists, exemplified by the projections of Carl-Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, of Oxford University, who in 2013 famously calculated that 47% of existing jobs in America are susceptible to automation.
There is another, less apocalyptic possibility. James Bessen, an economist at Boston University, has worked out the effects of automation on specific professions and finds that since 1980 employment has been growing faster in occupations that use computers than in those that do not. That is because automation tends to affect tasks within an occupation rather than wiping out jobs in their entirety. Partial automation can actually increase demand by reducing costs: despite the introduction of the barcode scanner in supermarkets and the ATM in banks, for example, the number of cashiers and bank tellers has grown.
But even though technology may not destroy jobs in aggregate, it does force change upon many people. Between 1996 and 2015 the share of the American workforce employed in routine office jobs declined from 25.5% to 21%, eliminating 7m jobs. According to research by Pascual Restrepo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the 2007-08 financial crisis made things worse: between 2007 and 2015 job openings for unskilled routine work suffered a 55% decline relative to other jobs.
In many occupations it has become essential to acquire new skills as established ones become obsolete. Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based start-up that analyses labour markets by scraping data from online job advertisements, finds that the biggest demand is for new combinations of skills—what its boss, Matt Sigelman, calls “hybrid jobs”. Coding skills, for example, are now being required well beyond the technology sector. In America, 49% of postings in the quartile of occupations with the highest pay are for jobs that frequently ask for coding skills (see chart). The composition of new jobs is also changing rapidly. Over the past five years, demand for data analysts has grown by 372%; within that segment, demand for data-visualisation skills has shot up by 2,574%.
This report looks at the developments of successful lifelong learning policies. A college degree at the start of a working career does not answer the need for the continuous acquisition of new skills, especially as career spans are lengthening vocational training is good at giving people job-specific skills, but those, too, will need to be updated over and over again during a career lasting decades. “Germany is often lauded for its apprenticeships, but the economy has failed to adapt to the knowledge economy,” says Andreas Schleicher, head of the education directorate of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, “vocational training has a role, but training someone early to do one thing all their lives is not the answer to lifelong learning.”