Most economists agree that advances in robotics and AI over the next few decades are likely to lead to significant job losses. But what’s less often considered is how these changes could also impact social mobility. A new report from UK charity Sutton Trust explains the danger, noting that unless governments take action, the next wave of automation will dramatically increase inequality within societies, further entrenching the divide between rich and poor.
The are a number of reasons for this, say the report’s authors, including the ability of richer individuals to re-train for new jobs; the rising importance of “soft skills” like communication and confidence; and the reduction in the number of jobs used as “stepping stones” into professional industries.
For example, the demand for paralegals and similar professions is likely to be reduced over the coming years as artificial intelligence is trained to handle more administrative tasks. In the UK more than 350,000 paralegals, payroll managers, and bookkeepers could lose their jobs if automated systems can do the same work.
“Traditionally, jobs like these have been a vehicle for social mobility,” Sutton Trust research manager Carl Cullinane tells . Cullinane says that for individuals who weren’t able to attend university or get particular qualifications, semi-administrative jobs are often a way in to professional industries. “But because they don’t require more advanced skills they’re likely to be vulnerable to automation,” he says.
Re-training for new jobs will also become a crucial skill, and it’s individuals from wealthier backgrounds that are more able to do so, says the report. This can already be seen in the disparity in terms of post-graduate education, with individuals in the UK with working class or poorer backgrounds far less likely to re-train after university.
One study in 2016 found that America has become significantly less conducive to social mobility over the past few decades. “It is increasingly the case that no matter what your educational background is, where you start has become increasingly important for where you end,” one of the study’s authors, Michael D. Carr, told The Atlantic last year. Another report found that around half of 30-year-olds in the US earn less than their parents at the same age, compared to the 1970s, when almost 90 percent earned more.
It’s important to note, though, that there is disagreement about how bad the impact of automation on the job market will be. Some reports have suggested that up to 50 percent of jobs in developed countries are at risk, while others point out that only specific tasks will be automated — rather than whole professions. Economists also note that new categories of jobs are likely to be created, although exactly what, and how many, is impossible to accurately predict.
The Sutton Trust report also says that there is some reason to be optimistic about the coming wave of automation, particularly if governments can encourage people to train for STEM professions (those involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
“From a social mobility perspective there are two important things about the STEM sector,” says Cullinane of the UK job market. “Firstly, there doesn’t seem to be a substantial gap in the income background of people taking STEM related subjects, and secondly, there isn’t a resulting pay gap for those who come from different backgrounds. If the STEM sector is going to be the main source of growth over the medium to long term, that’s a real opportunity to leverage social mobility there.”