Robots are stealing our jobs… but less quickly than we think

By Steven Van Belleghem

A study by McKinsey calculated that 49% of professional activities can be automated. This does not mean that 49% of our jobs will disappear. It means that in every job some aspects can be taken over by computers. Moreover, this 49% makes no allowance for future technological developments. This is the percentage of work activities that can already be automated with existing technology.

This sounds like a doom scenario for the labour market, but the good news in that the same study also showed that only 5% of jobs can be fully automated. In other words, the vast majority of jobs will undergo fundamental change, rather than disappear. Other research confirms much the same. An OECD report estimates that 9% of jobs can be fully automated. Forrester claims that 16% of existing jobs will be automated by 2025, but that 9% of new jobs will be created, making a net loss of 7%. In fact, if you take all these reports together, 7% is also the average figure for the expected loss of jobs as a result of rapid automation. Even so, this still means that an awful lot of people are suddenly going to find themselves unemployed.

The most important technology for the automation of work is natural language processing. This technology makes it possible for computers to read and analyse huge volumes of text in the same way as people, but immeasurably quicker. The faster this technology is developed, the faster human tasks will be mechanised. This will include, for example, the routine work of accountants and lawyers.

This technology is already as good as available. Consequently, the automation process can begin, theoretically at least. But there is an important nuance. Technologists regard the moment when the technology becomes available as the moment when the jobs will disappear. In practice, however, in most companies there will be quite a lengthy adoption curve. The fact that the technology is available does not mean that everyone is immediately going to use it or use it 100%.

Before the 1.7 million American truck drivers need to start looking for a new job, the scientists first need to refine the technology so that driverless lorries can operate safely in normal road conditions. This is estimated to be around 2025, but even that is not the end of the story. To replace all American lorries with self-drivers requires an investment of more than 1,000 billion dollars, a sum that is unlikely to be available overnight. In other words, the conversion is going to last for years, if not decades.

And this scenario will be repeated in other sectors of the economy. The changes in the labour market are coming, and it would be foolish to deny it. We can even see which jobs are going to be most at threat. But at least we have a degree of time to prepare ourselves – as individuals and as a society – to cope with the worst social and economic effects. We need to use this time wisely.

Feeling threatened by automation? Learn new skills!

In the near future, automation will make it necessary for people and machines to work closely together. This means that the job description of every role is set to change drastically. Employees who are not prepared to learn new skills risk making things difficult for themselves and may find themselves no longer needed. Saying “I’m not really interested in digital” is the equivalent of saying “I’m not really interested in learning to read and write” fifty years ago. You immediately rule yourself out of the job market. The third phase of digitalization is the phase of automation. This means that many aspects of many jobs will be transferred to machines in the near future. We all have to accept that the day-to-day activities within your job are likely to change. Some of us may even have to accept that it means doing a completely different job altogether.

Fortunately, there are solutions for learning new skills. Udacity is a new educational platform that grew out of two successful MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at Stanford. In 2011, 160,000 students followed the free computer science lessons, a further 90,000 registered for the introduction to artificial intelligence course it has now evolved into a provider of nano-diplomas in highly specialized fields. For example, Udacity is the only training centre where you can follow a course in how to programme a driverless car. Via Udacity, technology is allowing people to learn how to programme complex machines in just a few weeks, and this kind of platform is the ideal solution for anyone who feels that their current job is threatened.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem, pictured above, is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He’s is an award-winning author, and his new book Customers The Day After Tomorrow is out now. Follow him on Twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at or visit