The march of the job-destroying robots

Remember Rosie, the robot maid in the cartoon "The Jetsons"? Well, in a few years, Rosie and her ilk may be elbowing you out of a job.

Almost half of U.S. jobs are at risk, thanks to progressive improvements in several technological fields, ranging from robotics to big data analysis, which will transform the American labor force, according to a new report from Citigroup and Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of University of Oxford.

While automation has already impacted some American jobs during the past few decades, those have largely been blue-color jobs, such as robots that weld and paint parts in auto factories, and middle-level jobs such as office clerks. But the next wave of technological disruption will impact many of the low-skill occupations requiring a large degree of human interaction that were once seen as impossible or difficult to replace, such as taxi drivers and retail workers.

"The bulk of service occupations, where the most U.S. job growth has occurred over the past decades, are now at risk," the report noted. "Already the market for personal and household service robots is growing by about 20 percent annually -- a trend that is likely to continue."

Low-skill and low-income jobs are likely to be the first to be automated in the coming decades, a shift from the 19th and 20th century trends toward replacing manufacturing labor with machines, the report added.

So which jobs are at lower risk for being replaced by robots and automation? Those are occupations that require intensive social and creative jobs, such as most management, business and finance jobs, as well as those in education and healthcare. Occupations in science, engineering, the arts and media are also less susceptible to losing out to machines.

"The reason is simple: computers do not yet have the human ability to engage in complex interactions, such as negotiating and persuading, and while they can now solve most crisp problems, they are not as good at developing original ideas," Citigroup noted.

To be sure, not everyone agrees that advances in automation, robotics and data analysis will create such a huge workforce disruption. Robots and data are "just forms of productivity growth," according to Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. And data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that technology is not replacing workers very quickly.

The manufacturing industry continues to be revolutionized by robots, with the Boston Consulting Group reporting on Tuesday that investment in industrial robots will grow 10 percent a year through 2025 in the world's 25 biggest export nations. That will lead to lower costs and higher efficiency.

Yet according to Citigroup's report, occupations that currently employ millions of Americans are at risk from the onward march of the machines, and that will bring challenges and risks, including a continuing trend toward inequality.

The rise of income inequality can be blamed, to some extent, on the rise of automation, the report noted. For instance, digital technologies have made it easier to substitute capital in place of labor, which doesn't boost wages for the average worker. Instead, it helps to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few at the top.

At the same time, some blue-collar workers who lost manufacturing jobs have shifted into low-wage occupations, such a working as retail clerks, depressing their earnings. College graduates, though, have benefited from an earnings premium, another trend which is widening the income gap.

The disparity between the country's top earners and the rest of American workers might worsen if today's low-wage jobs dry up. Instead of finding work at McDonald's as a cashier, for instance, a worker might be replaced by a touch-screen. Without a college degree or the skills to find work in a low-risk occupation, that worker might end up even worse off than before.

Robots don't take sick days, or ask for raises or vacations. With push to introduce more automation, workers' bargaining positioning has weakened, although the report noted that other issues are also to blame, such as lower rates of unionization and globalization.

"So far, the digital age has been the age of capital rather than the era of labor," the report said.

While many jobs and American livelihoods may be at risk, the report stresses that there are also opportunities, such as creating more leisure for workers (hopefully the leisure will be their choice, not because they can't find a job), and more free or lower-cost items, such as entertainment.