The U.S. national unemployment rate ended 2018 at 3.9 percent, representing a slight increase from the previous month's 49-year low of 3.7 percent. Although Americans are currently enjoying some of the best employment figures in half a century, the outlook for the next fifty years is a bit more complicated.
The rise of artificial intelligence represents a threat to the continued relevance of human workers, and in turn, the Human Resources professionals who serve them. Here, we will explore what experts predict will happen to the workforce in the age of AI, and how HR can remain vital during a period of profound technological and economical change.
The future of work
In 2013, the New York Federal Reserve published a report on job polarization's impact on the labor market, which distinguished between "routine jobs," defined as occupations that involve following explicit instructions and obeying well-defined rules, and "non-routine jobs," which require more flexibility and creativity. The study found that the amount of routine jobs had been decreasing while the number of non-routine jobs were increasing, a trend that aligned with the rise of automation.
The inverse relationship between these two types of employment suggested that eventually, all routine jobs would be made obsolete by AI, leaving only creative, non-routine work for humans to perform. This led researchers at Oxford to examine 702 current occupations and conclude that 47 percent were at risk of being replaced by machines within the next one to two decades.
In the six years since the publication of that dire "Future of Employment" study, the workforce has yet to experience such a robotic revolution. However, some similarly dramatic forecasts have appeared in recent years, painting a picture of a gradual increase in automation that begins in labor and then expands to other types of industries.
While the first casualties of the AI revolution are likely to be blue collar employees, such as assembly line workers and taxi cab drivers, robots could eventually develop the sophistication required to perform advanced medical surgery or practice law, for example.
The changes could also happen more quickly then you might realize. In 2015, the Boston Consulting Group predicted that 25 percent of all industrial tasks will be performed by robots by 2025. In a 2017 study, consulting group PwC forecast that the rest of the U.S. economy would follow suit within the next five years, with four of every 10 jobs being lost to robotics by the year 2030.
The PwC study also concluded that the impact would be felt more acutely in America than in any other country of the world, due to a higher proliferation of routine jobs in this country, according to Fortune. The projection of robots taking over 38 percent of jobs in the U.S. by 2030 compares to 30 percent of jobs in the United Kingdom, 35 percent in Germany and 21 percent in Japan.
It should be noted that the more short-term predictions about the effects of AI tend to be far more optimistic.
Gartner actually predicts that by the end of 2019, AI will have created more jobs than it has eliminated. According to Forbes, the research firm believes that 1.8 million jobs will be lost to automation, while 2.3 million jobs will be created by AI innovations, as there will be a need for technical workers able to deploy the technology and train others how to use it. This prediction relies on AI being used to create "augmenting" tools that make work easier for skilled professionals in areas like healthcare and education, but do not make their roles redundant.
What is more difficult to predict, and more sobering to consider, is when such tools will evolve from "augmenting" to "replacing," and how HR professionals will have to adjust to that shifting landscape.
The role of HR
Over the next two decades, it's likely that HR departments will contract along with the dwindling human workforce. Alternately, though, HR professionals could find themselves becoming even more busy, as they are charged with managing the widespread downsizing that will occur during this time of upheaval in the workforce.
A more dire situation, yet one that presents a potential opportunity for HR professionals, is the gradual elimination of almost all human workers over the course of the next 100 years.
The Society for Human Resource Management paints a picture of near universal unemployment by the year 2119, which it views as both a major crisis and a chance for HR professionals to take a leadership role in navigating the brave new world of AI and automation.
SHRM believes that over the next century, HR professionals will use their unique skills and qualifications to transition from performing downsizing to "finalsizing," a new term for the complete elimination of jobs altogether. Though the new role will rely on many traditional characteristics of HR, such as the compassionate and sensitive handling of difficult realities for workers, it will also require the adoption of several different priorities and tasks.
For starters, HR professionals will be charged with helping all levels of management better understand and adjust to the human impact of continued automation, and with establishing programs that will train human employees to work in tandem with the advanced machinery. They will also be required to create, budget for and implement plans to help employees adjust to the new reality of a diminished human workplace.
To be effective in this future role, HR professionals will need to do more research and analysis on the present and future effects that AI is having or likely to have on the world, and on their industry in particular. HR professionals will need to be proactive and intellectually curious in order to learn about these impacts and be prepared with plans for both near and more distant future scenarios.
While this may require a level of advanced study and technical specificity that many HR professionals are not used to, it may prove to be a necessary evolutionary tactic in what is shaping up to be a rather merciless technological revolution. Developing strong situational awareness in these matters can help HR professionals to protect their own careers, as well as some of their human employees, from the increase in automation.