Another Labour crisis averted

Good news: another crisis declared by Labour, and the reason they created Robbo’s “Future of Work Commission”, is not as bad as first thought.

The robots aren’t coming to take your jobs.

Worried about being replaced by a robot? According to some recent forecasts many workers should be. There are gloomy predictions that even high-wage, knowledge jobs in finance, law and medicine won’t be spared amid the relentless rise of smart machines.

A striking 2013 study by Oxford University academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne said 47 per cent of all employment in America is “at risk” of being replaced by computers and algorithms in the next 10 to 20 years. Earlier this year a CSIRO report put the proportion of Australian jobs vulnerable to automation at a worrying 44 per cent.

But now there’s some good news – a forensic study for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests the angst about job-killing robots may be overstated.  

Of course it is overstated; Labour announced it was a crisis.

Rather than gauging the risk that whole occupations will be replaced by smart-machines, economists Melanie Arntz, Terry Gregory and Ulrich Zierahn examined the actual tasks performed in jobs and assessed how easily they could be automated. They discovered most jobs involve a bundle of tasks only some of which could easily be handled by machines.

Take clerks who do book-keeping, accounting and auditing for example. The earlier paper by Frey and Osborne put the risk of them being displaced by computers at 98 per cent. But it turns out three-quarters of those jobs require group work or face-to-face interaction – tasks that are very hard to automate.

When the diversity of workers’ tasks was taken into account the OECD authors found the proportion of US jobs at risk of computerisation was 9 per cent rather than the 47 per cent estimated by Frey and Obsorne’s widely cited paper. The OECD study found 9 per cent of jobs are “potentially automatable” across the 21 advanced nations included. That’s still a big proportion, but not the far-reaching disruption foreshadowed by some earlier forecasts.


The OECD authors also argue that the share of jobs “at risk” of automation will not necessarily equate to employment losses. First, economic, legal and societal hurdles can hamper the adoption of new technologies “so that technological substitution often does not take place as expected.” Second, workers in many occupations have scope to switching tasks as new technology is introduced and so avoid being rendered obsolete. And third, technological change will generate more jobs “through demand for new technologies and through higher competitiveness.”

People adapt, industries change and economies develop new and interesting industries. When cars replaced the horse and cart, buggy whip manufacturers went out of work but mechanics jobs grew along with panel beaters and spare parts manufacturing jobs etc.

Computers haven’t yet replaced jobs entirely, plus they created a fair few more jobs than they ever displaced.

Looks like Robbo has overstated his case yet again…at least the crisis is averted eh?



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