RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Fears of a dystopian future in which humans go jobless as robots and artificial intelligence take over have triggered novels, research, movies and more that warn of a “jobless future.”

But new research suggests that jobs will remain plentiful in coming years despite the march of bots, the Internet of Things, AI and machine learning that is driving more and more automation.

“The study challenges the false alarmism that contributes to a culture of risk aversion and holds back technology adoption, innovation, and growth,” wrote the authors of “The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030.”

“We predict that around one-tenth of the workforce are in occupations that are likely to grow as a percentage of the workforce. Around one-fifth are in occupations that will likely shrink,” says the study from the University of Oxford, the Nesta global innovation foundation, and Pearson, an international firm focused on learning.

While pointing out that millions of jobs are likely to be lost, the authors point out the 20 percent figure is “much lower than recent studies of automation have suggested. This means that roughly seven in ten people are currently in jobs where we simply cannot know for certain what will happen.”

They do, however, acknowledge that “our findings about skills suggest that occupation redesign coupled with workforce retraining could promote growth in these occupations.”

‘Jobless future’

Vivek Wadhwa

That’s a far different conclusion than reached by former Triangle tech entrepreneur turned academic and author Vivek Wadhwa. He recently warned of technology’s threats to jobs and life in general in the book “The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.” And Wadhwa recently was named a distinguished fellow at the Harvard Law School, where he will research the future of jobs.

Wadhwa has warned about a “jobless future” with robots, artificial intelligence and automation becoming more prevalent.

“I want to help with what I consider to be the most important research project of our times: to understand the impact of technology on jobs and develop policies to mitigate the dangers,” he recently told WRAL TechWire. “There is anecdotal evidence automation is affecting jobs but not enough hard research.”

“We plan to get the data and establish the facts,” Wadhwa added. “Then we will bring together a who’s who to develop public policy.”

AI impact ‘the big unknown’

Michael Walden, an economist at North Carolina State University, cited the “Future of Skills” report in discussing what he sees coming down the automation high-tech highway. He also warned that the impact of more advanced AI and robotics could change the jobs equation.

Mike Walden

“The big unknown for the future labor market is the impact of AI,” Walden said. “The better that AI can be developed to replicate human decision-making, the more pervasive will be technology replacing humans in the workforce.”

Then there are the advances being made in robotics as they become more human-like in function capability.

“Another factor is the ability of robot developers to create bots with human-like dexterity,” Walden pointed out. “The more this can be done, the more robots will be able to substitute for people.”

But, overall, he added, things could be worse.

“I think the downward revision in jobs impacted by automation is, in part, a reflection of today’s good job market,” Walden said of the report’s conclusion. US unemployment is under 4 percent, and right now there are more jobs than humans to fill them, according to government statistics.

That’s today, however, not tomorrow. And a smaller percentage doesn’t mitigate the fact that a lot of people face job loss – or the need for retraining.

“The new report still predicts 20 percent of occupations with a high chance of downsizing.,” Walden cautioned. “That’s millions of jobs nationwide and thousands in North Carolina.”

There is hope, however.

“Our biggest challenge will be making sure educational institutions are ready to retrain displaced workers,” Walden said.  “Modest costs and quick retraining will be key.”

From the “Future of Skills” report: Key trends affecting jobs

The Employment in 2030 report authors note that many other factors beyond automation must be considered to projecting future job demand:


  • Climate change consensus largely intact, but with notable cracks.
  • Structural changes resulting from emerging ‘green economy sector’ and ‘green jobs’, but vulnerable to political reversals.


  • More than half of world population lives in cities—70 percent by 2050. Cities attract high-value, knowledge intensive
    industries, offer more varied employment and consumption opportunities.
  •  Uncertainties include fiscal policy, infrastructure investments, high public debt ratios.


  • Rise in income and wealth inequality, middle class squeeze.
  • Disparities in education, healthcare, social services, consumption.


  • Indices of geopolitical uncertainty have remained high since 9/11 spike.
  • Mirrored by political and policy uncertainty—capacity of institutions and policymakers to act credibly and consistently.
  • Uncertainty negatively affects economic activity in government-influenced sectors, such as defence, finance, construction, engineering, and healthcare.


  • Perennial fears about impact of automation on employment.
  • Estimates of future automation impact range, from 47 percent of US employment at risk to only 9 percent.
  • Conversely, technology amplifies human performance in some occupations–and gives rise to entirely new
    occupations and sectors.


  • Global labor markets increasingly integrated.
  • Benefits (e.g.,advanced manufacturing, knowledge-intensive services) and costs (e.g., employment and wage impacts, trade deficits, legacy manufacturing).
  • Post-financial crisis headwinds (e.g., sluggish world trade growth, rising protectionism).


  • Pressures to control age-related entitlements vs. investments in education, R&D, infrastructure.
  • Ripple effects through healthcare, finance, housing, education, recreation.
  • Rising Millennial generation, with divergent consumption and work behaviors.

Where the jobs will be, won’t be

The Employment in 2030 report lists 25 professions where the authors project the greatest chance of growth. Those include:

  • Teachers
  • Animal care and service workers
  • Lawyers, judges and related workers
  • Engineers
  • Entertainers
  • Religious workers
  • Construction trade workers
  • Physical scientists

The list is much longer for professions where there is forecast to be less demand for employees, such as:

  • Woodworkers, metal workers, plastic workers
  • Financial clerks
  • Food processing
  • Retail sales
  • Librarians
  • Mechanics
  • Agricultural workers
  • Construction trades
  • Legal support
  • Life, physical and social science technicians

Impact on North Carolina

Compared to the Employment in 2030 report, Walden’s own analysis is neither utopian nor dystopian. But the future does favor workers with high-tech skills, he reports.

In his recently published book “North Carolina Beyond the Connected Age: The Tar Heel State in 2050,” Walden predicts occupations filled by 1.8 million workers face a 71-to-100 percent chance of being replaced by technology. That represents 40 percent of the state’s labor force.

Jobs at greatest risk include:

  • Bartenders
  • Dishwashers
  • Heavy truck drivers
  • Food preparation workers
  • Construction laborers
  • Retail salespersons
  • Accountants
  • Packaging machine operators
  • Loan officers

Jobs least at risk include:

  • Web and network developers
  • Business operation specialists
  • Software developers
  • High school teachers
  • Elementary school teachers
  • Registered nurses
  • Firefighters
  • Electricians
  • Physicians

“A conclusion of this analysis is that a large number of lower- and middle-paying occupations face the potential of significant downsizing from technology,” Walden wrote, “while many-but certainly not all-higher-paying occupations are much safer from technological encroachment.”