April 26, 2015
All Job Increases Since 2001 Are In Non-Routine Work

If a job involves executing a series of rules or a simple series of physical manipulations it is a candidate for automation by increasingly powerful computers. Routine work in the United States is down about 7% since 2001 in spite of a growing population.

What I find interesting: the routine brain work (bank teller, clerk) is down as much as the routine brawn work (machine tool operator, other factory worker).

The drop was very steep going into the 2008 recession. Possibly the drop in demand and profits spurred companies to go implement labor-saving technology that already existed.

If you work in a routine occupation

What are routine occupations? In the field of economics, these refer to jobs that involve a limited set of tasks. More importantly, those tasks tend to be “rule based,” in that they can be performed by following a well-defined set of instructions, and require minimal discretion.

For example, production occupations are a prime example of routine manual jobs: jobs that are both rule based and emphasize physical (as opposed to cerebral) tasks. As examples, factory workers who operate welding, fitting, and metal press machines fall into this category, as do forklift operators and home appliance repairers. Similarly, office and administrative support occupations are routine cognitive jobs that focus on rule based “brain” (as opposed to “brawn”) tasks. These include secretaries, bookkeeping and filing clerks, mail sorters, and bank tellers.

A growing literature demonstrates a profound implication of technological change on the labor market: many of the routine occupations that were once commonplace have begun to disappear, while others still have become obsolete.11 This is because the tasks involved in these occupations, by their nature, are prime candidates to be performed by new technologies.

The other two groups comprise occupations that focus on non-routine tasks: those that are not especially repetitive or rule-based. This means they might require flexibility (either cerebral or physical), and involve a variety of tasks. They also tend to emphasize greater degrees of human interaction, communication, or discretion. Non-routine cognitive occupations include jobs such as public relations manager, financial analyst, and computer programmer. Non-routine manual occupations include janitor, home health aide, and personal care aide.13

Some of the janitorial work is going to get automated. I expect 10 or 15 years from now robots will do most floor polishing and vacuuming. We can already buy automated floor cleaning devices for home use, though the products have reliability problems. Industrial versions will get much better. Home versions will as well. I'm waiting to see how well the Dyson 360 robotic vacuum works. Have high hopes for it.

Another area I expect to fall to automation: fast food restaurant food prep. It is a really big business with standardized procedures laid down by the big operators. So there are clear tasks to automate. McDonalds restaurants alone have about 841,000 employees just in the United States. Order taking and payment could be automated today. Many restaurant chains are already automating order taking with tablets which customers can use. You can order a pizza online and walk in and pick it up 20 minutes later.

Moley Robotics (click thru and see their demo) is working on a home cooking robot. I like it.

This video from Wired UK gives background on Moley's plans:

The tech will of course mature, get faster, get cheaper, get better at preparing and cleaning up. This will change personal relationships. Why marry a good cook when you can buy one?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2015 April 26 09:58 AM 

berardz said at April 27, 2015 6:32 AM:

I am always very suspicious of newly created terms fit an article. Anyone can create a name "routine brain work" assigns some declining professions and then claim a trend. It is sometimes called equation-fitting.

bob sykes said at April 30, 2015 3:50 AM:

There are many activities in the professions that are easily automated, reducing demand for the professionals. Back in the 70's computers and pocket calculators trashed employment in engineering design offices. Demand for junior engineers, who did the calculating with adding machine and sliderules, dropped. Draftsmen were replaced by CAD. Survey parties went from 3 to 5 men to 1 to 2. Secretaries and accountants disappeared. etc etc.

Now the legal profession is feeling the heat. Much of entry level law work is mere data base searching, which is better done by machine. Medicine is next.

Swarup said at April 30, 2015 6:15 AM:

Whether a job is going to disappear or not does not depend upon whether it requires high intelligence or is very difficult or not . It just depends upon 1. Whether it can be done by machines or automation economically and reliable and 2. Whether it is acceptable by customers or not . Thats why I believe many jobs of say scientists, chemists , pathologists, radiologists etc will disappear very soon or will shrink drastically . Whereas say a pediatrician , psychologist, a homely nurse etc will thrive . Lot of people are not aware of this apparent paradox . Say there are 2 brothers one becomes a scientist with a phd and hopes to be employed in a lab doing scientific tests and earn handsomely , another is uneducated and gets employed as a waiter in a high end boutique restaurant . I would say in 10 years line the first brother will loose his job whereas the second brother will be tipped handsomely in his job. We need to inform others about this aspect of the future jobs. A question to Randall can you name some current or future jobs which does not require much brain or brawn but will be very hard to be replaced by automation (either inherently or because of acceptability) atleast in the coming 50 years .

shiva10008 said at May 4, 2015 11:58 AM:

I work in the voice recognition field. Bold prediction: speech-to-text will never be perfected in our lifetimes. It's because you're trying to standardize and automate an organically-developed system. And organic systems are much more resistant to categorization and standardization. Human speech is a great example of this. Humans understand language more through context than through literal rules. Of course, you can try to simulate context, which is what they are trying to do, but it's only an approximation. Think, the type of 'smart' technology we have today but more sophisticated. That's where I see this heading. I think Randall is too optimistic about all this life extension technology and genetic engineering (there are apparently huge unintended consequences involved with gene alteration). I guess everyone needs something to believe in. In the West we think we are so rational, but perhaps Americans are susceptible to wishful thinking when it comes to the possibilities of technology.

Look at where all the technological advancement has been in recent decades: computers, ie man-made systems that are based on human logic. My work is repetitive, but it's hard to automate due to the organic nature of the data involved (same thing in medicine). I almost want to give a standing ovation whenever someone can utter a sentence of more than 3 words and have it auto-transcribed with no errors....

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