Will the spread of automation and robotics mean the end of the white-collar worker?


Over the last century we’ve seen automation replace low-skill, blue-collar jobs. Now, computerisation and automation are making many white-collar professions more efficient, allowing for jobs to be replaced. Using email, search tools and other software, an administrator is much more productive than 20 years ago. More strikingly, artificial intelligence and computerisation are likely to have a big impact on high-profile professions like law (replacing much paralegal and document analysis work) and medicine (with Watson 2.0 and Telehealth boosting the productivity of doctors and nurses). A lawyer in 20 years may be doing the work of 100 lawyers a decade ago, and there will most likely be redeployment. Our advice: stay flexible – develop creative, transferable problem-solving skills, teamwork, and social intelligence. These won’t be automated for some time to come. Sean O’Heigeartaigh is academic projects manager at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology.


With virtually every advance in technology, the cry is raised that it will destroy jobs. In fact, the new technology lowers production costs and increases the wealth of society, creating a demand for new jobs. The first textile machines of the Industrial Revolution were opposed by Luddites because they threatened jobs. They did indeed destroy some, but created many more newer, higher value jobs. Similarly, the invention of typewriters meant fewer scribes, but many more office workers to operate the new machines. Robotics and automation are replacing some white-collar workers, but their lower costs bring increased wealth and with it the demand for new, higher value, better-paid jobs. They bring not the death of the white collar worker, but higher-skilled, added value employment that calls for the kind of judgement difficult to automate. Automation is a boon, not a threat. Dr Madsen Pirie is founder and president of the Adam Smith Institute.