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Watch all these jobs disappear

This column often highlights the various technological disruptions that will change all our lives – for better and for worse. As I have written before, this is a time of phenomenal economic and technological change, and the ramifications will be felt far and wide.

One of the issues we will have to deal with in this sea of change will be jobs. Some of the occupations and positions we are so used to in our current lives will simply…disappear. I have been following the growing literature on the future of jobs, and can confirm my early suspicions: this change will be quicker and more dramatic than we can see today.

The University of Oxford, in a study entitled “The Future of Employment” recently made a bold prediction: nearly half of all current US jobs will be automated away by 2033. This is because much of the work we regard as reserved for humans today will become very easy for machines to do. Very soon.

If you doubt this, just take a look at the number of things heavy users of smartphones are doing with their gadgets. Many more people are becoming much more self-sufficient, simply by utilizing the ever-expanding capacity of something they carry around in their pockets.

Some jobs are already disappearing fast, as the businesses that employed them become redundant. Or when was the last time you saw a new video, photo, or record shop or, more painfully, bookstore open near you?

Consider a job with little future: bank teller. This one will have consequences in Kenya, with our current proliferation of bank branches and armies of associated tellers. Dirty little industry secret: how many of those branches are actually profitable? How many more are becoming less profitable with time? How many youngsters do you know who are willing to queue up in branches, at the bank’s convenience rather than their own? Look at the growing usage of mobile banking and payments products, or the experimental ‘digital’ branches beginning to sprout up, and you will see that the bells are tolling for tellers.

Similarly, expect there to be far-reaching changes in many routine jobs. As cash plays less and less of a role in the payments ecosystem (as it inevitably must) the need for someone to man tills is going to diminish. What about the check-in attendant? Notice the new self-check-in machines at JKIA? A sign of the times to come. When I visited Munich last year, all domestic check-ins were being done without manned counters. Similarly, the US expects postal delivery jobs to decline by up to a third in the coming few years.

Here’s a less obvious job under threat: travel agent. Some years back, I did a talk for a local travel agents network, warning of this. I think I was dismissed as someone slightly barmy, as most of them were recording growing sales at the time. But my point remains: the banal, routine part of the travel agent’s work – cutting tickets, booking rooms – is already all but gone, as airline and hotel websites make it easy for customers to do it all themselves. There is a future for the travel agent, but it is more as a consultant or bulk buyer, or in the handling of complex group travel. Those who make this transition will survive; the others will be footnotes in history.

Which leads us to the obvious conclusion: the more routine, predictable and repetitive a job is, the more vulnerable it is to being automated out of existence. Only jobs that the machines can’t do – those that require human interaction, discussion, judgement or insight – can survive. Machines won’t just take over jobs and kill employment, however – they will release humans to do the jobs humans should actually do.

This requires totally fresh thinking in education and training policy, and a fresh emphasis on creative and social skills. Otherwise we are merely training our children to grow up to be made redundant.

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