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Embracing the New Age of Automation

With rapid advances in automation and artificial intelligence in recent years, many are worried about a jobless future and sky-high levels of inequality. But the large-scale technologically driven shift currently underway should be welcomed, and its adverse effects should be managed with proactive policies to reinvest in workers.

LONDON – Ever since early-nineteenth-century textile workers destroyed the mechanical looms that threatened their livelihoods, debates over automation have conjured gloom-and-doom scenarios about the future of work. With another era of automation upon us, how nervous about the future of our own livelihoods should we be?

A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that, depending on a country’s level of development, advances in automation will require 3-14% of workers worldwide to change occupations or upgrade their skills by the year 2030. Already, about 10% of all jobs in Europe have disappeared since 1990 during the first wave of routine-based technological change. And with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), which affects a broader range of tasks, that share could double in the coming years.

Historically, job displacement has occurred in waves, first with the structural shift from agriculture to manufacturing, and then with the move from manufacturing to services. But throughout that process, productivity gains have been reinvested to create new innovations, jobs, and industries, driving economic growth as older, less productive jobs are replaced with more advanced occupations.

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