Assessing the Future of Our Work: Automation and the Role of Cities

July 16, 2018

National League of Cities

The rise of new technologies has drastically changed the nature of work throughout history, both as a cause of and a response to massive historical shifts. Cities feel these shifts most acutely, serving as the places where these rapid movements are found, focused, and filtered into broader society. Knowledge sharing and new ideas form within a conglomeration of individuals as the density of people from all walks of life, cultures, and creeds create a dynamism that pushes us forward. This dynamism often leads to disruption—as well as great upheaval—as technology upends fundamental ways of being. As automation and robotics permeate great swaths of the workforce, we currently find ourselves in a period in which large numbers of workers will be displaced.
No industry, job, or task is safe from automation. Displacement of existing jobs is a given, and the new kinds of jobs that will arise in their place remain unknown. Today, new technologies can optimize manual, automatic, routine, and non-routine tasks alike, making displacement difficult to quantify. A 2013 Oxford study predicted that automation would replace 47% of American occupations in the next two decades. Alternatively, a 2016 study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) using a task-based approach found that automation would eliminate only nine percent of American occupations. Furthermore, McKinsey Global has estimated the U.S. labor force will hold 166 million workers by 2030, with anywhere between 39 to 73 million of this contingent displaced by automation. There are predictions that some 48 to 54 million people will need to change careers in this time frame. Unfortunately, the incongruence and complexities do not end there. While fear of displacement lingers as a quantifiably ambiguous but certain force of change, cities must also grapple with the fact that currently 22.2 percent of the U.S. labor force is underutilized, meaning individuals are working beneath their skill sets, are underemployed, and/or are earning beneath their means.

Even the lowest estimates on automation mean that millions of Americans will be out of work, but cities can take strategic steps to prepare for this future. While cities can do little to prevent the elimination of jobs due to automation, they can prepare their local economies for prospective high-demand jobs that have low probabilities of being automated. They can also equip workers with those promising skill sets that will be in-demand in the future. This report identifies different categories of occupations and attempts to bridge the gaps between those with high and low automatability. We suggest the best skills and logical career crosswalks towards better opportunities and sustainable local economies. Finally, we present examples from three American cities to show how they are supporting and scaling accessible pathways to employment, equity, and emerging industries.

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