Machines and automated software will be handling fully half of all workplace tasks within seven years, a new report from the World Economic Forum forecasts. But the group said technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and precision medicine, could create more jobs than they threaten.
In a study of executives and specialists across 12 industries, published on Sept. 17, the WEF concluded that this so-called "Fourth Industrial Revolution" could create 133 million jobs globally, while 75 million workers may be displaced.
Saadia Zahidi, head of the WEF’s Center for the New Economy and Society, said companies had "a moral and economic imperative" to invest in retraining and continuing education for their employees. "Without proactive approaches, businesses and workers may lose out," she said.
The report is the latest in a series of efforts by academics, consultancies and governments to assess the impact of new technologies on employment. Previous studies, including an earlier one by the WEF, have generally forecast automation will destroy more jobs than it creates.
The scale of projected displacement varies enormously between research groups, however.
A Bank of England study in 2015 produced some of the bleakest figures, forecasting that as many as 80 million jobs in the U.S. and 15 million in the U.K. could be lost by 2035.
A McKinsey report in December produced one of the rosier assessments, forecasting jobs lost and created by new technology might be about equal by 2030.
In its latest analysis, the WEF said the effects of automation may vary substantially across industries, and predicted job losses to be heaviest in mining, consumer, and information technology companies, and less within professional services firms.
Many new jobs may be less secure than in the past, as businesses are increasingly turning to contractors and freelancers, the Swiss foundation said. It warned there’s a significant gap between the skills workers currently have and those that may be required for future new roles.
It estimates more than half of employees at large companies would need significant retraining in order to take advantage of new opportunities created by digital technology. But it said half of all companies plan to retrain only for "key roles," and only one-third say they plan any retraining for at-risk workers.
Best known for throwing an annual summit of business and government leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, the WEF said it based its forecast on a survey of senior executives, strategy officers and human resource specialists at 300 global companies, spanning 20 different countries. It said these companies represented more than 15 million employees and their economies represented 70% of global GDP.
By Jeremy Kahn