We have written several times about the threats posed by AI to the workforce. Now the ONS (Office for National Statistics) confirms our findings. Apparently, automation threatens 1.5 million workers in Britain and women and part-timers are most at risk, while supermarket checkout jobs have fallen by 25%, between 2011 and 2017.
Some technology groups are already experimenting with retail outlets that will not require human-run checkouts or cashiers. Last year Amazon, which is expanding into grocery selling, opened a supermarket in Seattle with no checkout assistants, relying instead on sensors to track what shoppers removed from shelves, using “just walk out” technology to bill customers and end queues. Meanwhile McDonald’s is rapidly shifting to self-ordering kiosks in its restaurants, removing the need for customers to speak to workers at the counter.
Other jobs where automation has taken its toll include laundry workers, farm workers and tyre fitters, among which numbers have dropped by 15% or more, said the ONS, as machines have replaced labour.
Women are most likely to lose out, said the ONS. “The analysis showed a higher proportion of roles currently filled by women are at risk of automation; in 2017, 70.2% of high-risk jobs were held by women.”
It named Tamworth, Rutland and South Holland in Lincolnshire as the areas most exposed to automation – partly reflecting a relatively high level of farm workers – while Camden in north London has the workers least at risk.
But the ONS analysis also found many workers – especially those in their mid to late 30s and who work in London and the south-east – have little to fear from the rise of the robots.
“The risk of job automation … is lowest for workers between 35 and 39. Just 1.3% of people in this age bracket are in roles at high risk of automation,” said the ONS. It found that jobs currently performed by young adults were most at risk of automation, partly because entry-level jobs have simpler tasks that can be more easily computerised.
Higher levels of education protect workers from automation. The ONS said that, of the jobs at risk, 39% were held by people whose educational attainment level was GCSE or below, while 1.2% were held by those who had been through higher education or university.
The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said: “The workers most at risk from automation are the same workers already badly hit by austerity. Workers and trade unions should take charge of the changing economy, not be its casualties. The next Labour government will be on the side of workers and our planet, ushering in a green industrial revolution.”
The ONS noted the wide disagreements among academics about the future impact automation and computerisation will have on the workplace. A 2011 study produced a long list of occupations at risk of automation – but the ONS found that in many of those occupational areas, the number of jobs had increased rapidly since then.
Notably, “leisure and theme park attendants” were regarded in the earlier study as being at high risk of automation. Yet between 2011 and 2017 employment in this sector grew by more than 50%.
The ONS said: “If we isolate the 20 occupations with the highest probability of automation, we would expect employment to decrease in these occupations as automation starts to take place. However, this is not the case across all occupations – some have experienced an increase in employment between 2011 and 2017.”
The ONS also marked down its future estimate for job losses compared with the earlier report. It said the proportion of jobs at high risk of automation decreased slightly between 2011 and 2017, from 8.1% to 7.4%. But it raised its estimate for the number of jobs at low or medium risk of automation.