March 10, 2016

Public Predictions for the Future of Workforce Automation

A majority of Americans predict that within 50 years, robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans – but few workers expect their own jobs or professions to experience substantial impacts

From self-driving vehicles and semi-autonomous robots to intelligent algorithms and predictive analytic tools, machines are increasingly capable of performing a wide range of jobs that have long been human domains. A 2013 study by researchers at Oxford University posited that as many as 47% of all jobs in the United States are at risk of “computerization.” And many respondents in a recent Pew Research Center canvassing of technology experts predicted that advances in robotics and computing applications will result in a net displacement of jobs over the coming decades – with potentially profound implications for both workers and society as a whole.

Two-thirds of Americans expect that robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans within 50 years but most workers expect that their own job will exist in its current form in five decadesThe ultimate extent to which robots and algorithms intrude on the human workforce will depend on a host of factors, but many Americans expect that this shift will become reality over the next half-century. In a national survey by Pew Research Center conducted June 10-July 12, 2015, among 2,001 adults, fully 65% of Americans expect that within 50 years robots and computers will “definitely” or “probably” do much of the work currently done by humans.

Yet even as many Americans expect that machines will take over a great deal of human employment, an even larger share (80%) expect that their own jobs or professions will remain largely unchanged and exist in their current forms 50 years from now. And although 11% of today’s workers are at least somewhat concerned that they might lose their jobs as a result of workforce automation, a larger number are occupied by more immediate worries – such as displacement by lower-paid human workers, broader industry trends or mismanagement by their employers.

Two-thirds of Americans think it’s likely that in 50 years robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans

Government, education and non-profit workers are slightly more skeptical about the likelihood of widespread workforce automationWhen it comes to their general predictions for the future of human employment and workforce automation, roughly two-thirds of Americans expect that within the next 50 years robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by humans. Some 15% of Americans expect that this level of automation will “definitely” happen, while 50% think it will “probably” happen. On the other hand, one-quarter of Americans expect that this outcome will probably not happen, and 7% believe it will definitely not happen.

In general, Americans of various demographic backgrounds have largely similar expectations regarding the future of automation. However, those under the age of 50 – as well as those with relatively high household incomes and levels of educational attainment – are a bit more skeptical than average about the likelihood of widespread workforce automation. Some 35% of 18- to 49-year-olds think it unlikely that robots and computers will do much of the work done by humans, compared with 27% of those ages 50 and older. And 37% of those with a college degree think that this outcome is unlikely (compared with 28% of those who have not attended college), as do 38% of Americans with an annual household income of $75,000 or more (compared with 27% of those with an annual household income of less than $30,000 per year).

Similarly, Americans who work in the government, nonprofit or education sectors are a bit more skeptical about the future of workforce automation than are Americans who work for a large corporation, medium-sized company or small business. Just 7% of Americans who work in the government, education or nonprofit sectors expect that robots and computers will definitely take over most human employment in the next 50 years, while 13% of those who work for a large corporation or small business or medium-sized company are certain that this will occur.

Despite their expectations that technology will encroach on human employment in general, most workers think that their own jobs or professions will still exist in 50 years

Yet even as most Americans expect significant levels of workforce and job automation to occur over the next 50 years, most of today’s workers1 express confidence that their own jobs or occupations will not be impacted to a substantial degree. Fully 36% of workers anticipate that their current jobs or occupations will “definitely” exist in their current forms five decades from now, while an additional 44% expect that their jobs will “probably” exist in 50 years. Roughly one-in-five workers expect that their current jobs will “probably not” (12%) or “definitely not” (6%) exist in their current forms that far in the future.

Overall there are relatively few differences in these expectations based on workers’ demographic characteristics, and the differences that do exist are relatively modest. For instance, younger workers are a bit more likely than older workers to expect that their current jobs will exist 50 years in the future: 84% of workers ages 18 to 29 expect that this will be the case, compared with 76% of workers ages 50 and older.

Workers in the government, education and nonprofit sectors, as well as those whose jobs involve manual or physical labor, have high expectations for the staying power of their current jobAnd as was the case for their predictions for workforce automation in general, workers in government, education and nonprofit sectors are a bit more confident than those in the private sector that their jobs will exist in their current forms 50 years from now: 86% of these workers expect that this will be the case (including 42% who indicate that their current jobs will “definitely” exist), compared with 79% of those who work for a large corporation, medium-sized company or small business.

Along with these differences based on place of employment, workers’ views on this subject also differ somewhat based on the type of work they currently do. For instance, 41% of workers whose jobs involve mostly manual or physical labor expect that their current jobs will “definitely” exist in their current forms in 50 years, as do 34% of those who describe their current occupations as “professional.” By contrast, just 23% of those who currently work in a managerial or executive role expect that their current jobs will exist unchanged for the next five decades. But overall, a substantial majority of workers across a range of categories express confidence in the long-term staying power of their current jobs or professions.

One-in-ten workers are concerned about losing their current jobs due to workforce automation, but competition from lower-paid human workers and broader industry trends pose a more immediate worry

Many Americans expect workforce automation to become much more prominent over the coming half-century, but relatively few of today’s workers see computers and robots as an imminent threat to their job prospects at the moment.

When asked about a number of issues that might cause them to lose their current jobs, just 11% of workers are at least somewhat concerned that they might lose their jobs because their employer replaces human workers with machines or computer programs. On the other hand, roughly one-in-five express concern that they might lose their jobs because their employer finds other (human) workers to perform their jobs for less money or because their overall industry workforce is shrinking. The most prominent concern is poor management by their own employer, albeit by a narrow margin, among the five evaluated in this survey:

  • 26% of workers are concerned that they might lose their current jobs because the company they work for is poorly managed.
  • 22% are concerned about losing their jobs because their overall industry is shrinking.
  • 20% are concerned that their employer might find someone who is willing to do their jobs for less money.
  • 13% are concerned that they won’t be able to keep up with the technical skills needed to stay competitive in their jobs.
  • 11% are concerned that their employer might use machines or computer programs to replace human workers.

Workers who perform physical or manual labor more concerned about a number of imminent job threatsWorkers whose jobs involve primarily manual or physical labor2 express heightened concern about all of these potential employment threats, especially when it comes to replacement by robots or other machines. Fully 17% of these workers are at least somewhat concerned about the threat from workforce automation, with 11% indicating that they are “very concerned.” By contrast, just 5% of workers whose jobs do not involve manual labor express some level of concern about the threat of workforce automation.

  1. Throughout this report, the phrase “workers” refers to anyone who reported they were currently employed on a full- or part-time basis at the time of this survey.
  2. These workers include those who answered “yes” to the following question: “Would you say that the type of work you do primarily involves manual and physical labor, or not?”