labor's loss?

Could A Robot Do Your Job?

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If societies can adapt to the technical changes which will lead to many people’s jobs being done by robots, people will be able to enjoy greater freedoms.

  • Facts


    • Jobs like dentist, lawyer, novelist, boss and waiter are too complicated for robots to do.
    • Many chief executives have called for a basic income to soften the blow of digitization and accompanying loss of jobs.
    • According to a 2013 study, automation, artificial intelligence and digitalization could wipe out 47 percent of jobs in the United States by 2030.
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AKW Cattenom
Those magnificent robots and their driving machines. Source: DPA-Picture Alliance, Tesla [M]

There was a time when Nick Willett-Jeffries couldn’t help question why on earth he had become a historian.

His first job out of college was poorly paid even though it was at the New York governor’s office. So was his second job at an ad agency. Mr. Willett-Jeffries, then 28, watched as other graduates who had studied computer science got bombarded with job offers straight out of school. And their starting salaries – $80,000 (€75,000) – were better too.

But going back to college wasn’t an option for Mr. Willett-Jeffries. A degree at a reputable college or university can set one back more than $100,000 in the United States.

Three years ago, Mr. Willett-Jeffries stumbled upon the website of a coding school, an online program that offered to turn him into a professional programmer in as little as 12 weeks. It sounded like just the right thing.

“I wanted to learn something new,” Mr. Willett-Jeffries said of the crash course in programming languages like CSS, Javascript and Ruby on Rails.

That was back in 2014. In as little as three months, he had become one of the first people to complete training at a coding academy. Since then, thousands of like-minded people have followed suit.

Online programming academies are booming. More than 500 have been founded in the U.S. alone, and the first offshoots have already sprung up overseas.

Major corporations such as IBM, Uber, Twitter and McKinsey are working with online coding schools to gain early access to newly trained programmers and help shape the curriculum.

Coding schools are a symbol of today’s job market. Not only do they deliver the skill set and knowledge employers need, but they do so in incremental doses, allowing participants to adjust their qualifications over their careers.

For students such as Mr. Willett-Jeffries, code school gave him the chance to narrow the gap between himself and the digital elite without having to spend years studying computer science. That’s a huge advantage.

According to a 2013 study by the University of Oxford, automation, artificial intelligence and digitalization could wipe out 47 percent of jobs in the United States by 2030. In Germany, up to 59 percent of jobs may be at risk, according to economists at Dutch bank ING Diba.

Even if these figures are exaggerated, and only a third of all jobs wind up disappearing, it would still represent a huge shift in the economy that would radically change the job market as we know it.

Luckily, not all of these jobs will vanish without new ones being created. History has taught us that when an industry dies, another is often born in its place. The world’s not in danger of running out of work – not in Germany, not anywhere.

There are no guarantees that someone who loses their job will automatically be assigned a new one elsewhere, or one with similar benefits.

Europe’s largest economy has already gone through waves of innovation, each as disruptive as the last. In 1882, more than 40 percent of Germans worked in agriculture. Today, only 2 percent do.

Yet somehow, there are no hordes of unemployed people wandering aimlessly through the country’s cities.

By the same token, Germans have been anxious for decades about computers and robots taking their jobs. In 1978, Der Spiegel magazine published a front-page image of a worker in overalls being hoisted up into the air by a robot.

“The computer revolution: progress is a job killer,” read the headline.

Thirty-eight years later, a new issue of Der Spiegel showed a robotic arm plucking an office worker from his desk. Beneath the picture were the words, “How computers and robots are stealing our work.”

These unholy contraptions have been undermining workers for nearly four decades, yet somehow employment in Germany is at an all-time high. Or maybe it’s not a coincidence. Can it be Der Spiegel and others in the German media establishment were dead wrong?

Can it be that the computer revolution, and its new, robotic iteration, will continue to lead the way forward to robust employment?

That’s not to say there is no cause for concern for today’s workers. Even if the number of jobs remains constant or continues to climb, entire sectors can and almost definitely will disappear as a result of technological change.

There are no guarantees that someone who loses their job will automatically be assigned a new one elsewhere, or one with similar benefits.

Der Spiegel, as it turns out, wasn’t all that wrong. In many branches, robots have been replacing flesh-and-blood workers since the 1970s. Automobile manufacturing plants once manned by legions of workers are almost completely run by machines.

The new jobs that have replaced them have largely been in service sectors. But call center employees or cell phone salespeople aren’t paid nearly as well as their car industry counterparts, and they don’t have nearly as much job security.

Every new wave of innovation divides society into winners and losers. On one side are those who get to keep their jobs. Their work is actually facilitated by new technology. Robots and computers actually help them be more productive, creative, healthier and better paid.

Then there are the so-called losers. Their skills are rapidly devalued because a robot or a computer can do their work faster and cheaper.

It’s perfectly legitimate and understandable to wonder, in lieu of all this technological change: How safe is my job?

The answer is fairly simple. If you work on a conveyor belt, carry out some repetitive task, drive a truck, forklift or train, or perform administrative duties for your boss – your job will likely be replaced by a computer someday.

Audi, for instance, recently abolished its conveyor belts at a plant in Ingolstadt in southern Germany and replaced them with autonomous transport robots that carry unfinished cars between the factory’s 200 assembly platforms.

With it, Audi achieved a 20 percent improvement in productivity.

But it’s not only factory jobs that are affected. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) expects half of all German call centers to be closed in the next 10 years.

Human phone agents, according to BCG, will be replaced by computers that can speak, understand responses and accomplish most standard tasks over the phone more efficiently – and often better – than people.

At the end of October, a driverless truck transported commercial cargo for the first time. The vehicle belonged to a subsidiary of Uber, the ride-sharing company. It drove 200 kilometers (124 miles) through the U.S. state of Colorado and delivered 50,000 cans of beer.


Today, digital assistants can complete 86 percent of the tasks of a skilled worker in the chemical industry, as evidenced by a study from the Institute for Employment Research. For metal workers, 61 percent of their competencies can be mimicked by new technologies.

Programmers, digital designers and data scientists, on the other hand, will be among the winners of this new technological era.

“Those who possess the right digital skills will be able to take their pick of jobs,” said Rainer Strack, who heads the “People and Organizations” division at BCG in Europe. “These kinds of workers will be a scarce resource.”

But the architects of the digital revolution won’t be the only ones who will profit from it. Anyone who earns his or her money because of a qualification that cannot be recreated by a robot or a computer will have a fighting chance in the new world.

In fact, there are three types of professions that are sure to come out on top.

For one, any hands-on tasks that are too complex even for a robot or that would be too costly to automate will always be in demand. At the upper end of this spectrum are, for example, dentists. Our mouths are too complicated, too diverse for mechanical hands. So much of what dentists do depends on the right combination of dexterity and experience.

At the lower end of the qualification spectrum are waiters. They have similarly good job prospects, though their pay scale is considerably lower than the people who clean their teeth. Keeping an eye on customers, taking orders, setting tables, carrying full plates through busy dining rooms – all the while staying friendly – is a juggling act that cannot be reproduced by robots.

Not to mention the fact that a human wait staff is much less expensive than a fleet of robots. The same could be said for patrol cops.

The second category of future-proof occupations includes anyone whose job demands both expertise and creativity to produce something new. By now, computers are capable of composing simple journalistic dispatches as well as any reporter.

But no computer is going to write a good novel anytime soon, even if George Orwell did foresee novel-writing machines in his dystopian prognosis, “1984.”


A similar pairing of knowledge and creativity is also required of employees in R&D departments and lawyers, who must articulate coherent arguments on legal texts and precedents.

Another role that’s in no danger of becoming superfluous anytime soon is that of a good boss, someone who can motivate others and make important decisions. They exude the same kind of positive emotional connection as other professionals whose mere presence is enough to deliver results. Imagine flying in a plane with an empty cockpit, or being operated on by a robotic arm wielding a scalpel.

Most people would balk at the mere idea.

As for jobs in the digital age, there’s no turning back.

“Anyone who thinks he’ll be able to simply hold onto his old job is wrong,” said Thomas Frey, a futurist at the DaVinci Institute, an American think tank. “No sector will be spared. The financial industry showed us as much last year.”

Loads of financial technology startups, or fintechs for short, set their sights on the old players. Meanwhile, the banks, insurance companies and wealth managers have been forced to come to terms with a completely different match in which their opponents are punching above their weight.

“Companies must take their employees along with them into the future and start investing in qualifications early on.” That’s what Rainer Strack from BCG tells his customers. Employees, for their part, must be willing to learn new skills, again and again. “Life-long learning until retirement is an absolute must,” he said.

In Mr. Frey’s vision of the future, freelancers will make up an increasingly significant part of the workforce. They’ll work from home, shared offices, even in the car once autonomous vehicles become common. That way, workers can be on the clock even if they’re stuck in traffic.

Politicians are beginning to accept the reality of the situation as well, though their approaches often seem anachronistic. If there are going to be more freelancers, some say, then they’ll have to pay into the public pension scheme. If general working hours need to be adjusted, let the unions sort it out with the employers.

Some of the most radical propositions are coming from the employers themselves. Joe Kaeser and Timotheus Höttges, the chief executives of two of Germany’s most powerful companies, Siemens and Deutsche Telekom, are calling for the government to provide a basic income to all its citizens to soften the blow of abrupt and disruptive technological change.

Bernd Leukert, chairman of the board at the software company SAP, has made similar pleas.

The way the Kaesers, Höttgeses and Leukerts of the world see it, what’s the point of modeling the social safety net around a system based on job guarantees for everyone when jobs can no longer be guaranteed?

Germany’s labor minister, Andrea Nahles, for her part, sees it differently. Unconditional basic income doesn’t belong in a society in which being employed is part of the common identity. She also argues that companies are only looking for an excuse to streamline their operations and cut jobs.

The idea of leveraging technology to reduce the strain on a workforce while maintaining workers’ standards of living has existed for decades. Forty years after the first robots and computers began performing tasks once reserved for humans, workers are still expected to put in a full eight hours each day.

Before their shifts even begin, many will sit in traffic, dreaming about the 30 days of vacation they get each year.

What happened to the assurances that increased automation would eventually lead to shorter work weeks for everyone?

As the latest wave of automation passes over us, it’s time to address fundamental questions for our society. How much do we want to work? Should we use the productivity gains made possible by robots and computers to increase the standard of living for some people but not others? Or would we rather invest them in more freedoms, more time for leisure and to learn, love and raise our children?

That’s something the robots can never take away from us.


Astrid Dörner and Christian Rickens are Handelsblatt editors at the Düsseldorf headquarters. Peter Thelen writes about social security systems, the job market and labor topics. To contact the authors:,

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