Washington - About half of millennials looking for work are interested in jobs that carry a risk of automation, a new study suggests. The findings indicate the youngest and most educated generation in the American work force isn't necessarily more robot-proof than older workers, who tend to be portrayed as the primary victims of automation.
"Millennials show a considerable amount of interest in occupations that face a threat of automation," said Daniel Culbertson, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, the research institute attached to the international job site, and the author of the report.
"That gets lost when people talk about millennials being so highly educated and more interested in tech roles."
A college degree doesn't protect against robot rivals because even well-paid, highly skilled jobs could shrink or vanish in the near future, he said. Recent graduates who land high salaries aren't impervious if their job is characterized by repetitive tasks and decisions.
Work that involves heavy routine, Culbertson said, is most susceptible to automation. Computers can master extremely complex patterns.
Job security, some economists theorize, lies in roles that require an understanding of something less predictable: human behaviour. Think management, medical and creative roles.
Culbertson wanted to better understand the employment risk each generation faces from automation, so he turned to clicks at Indeed. The site attracts an average of 200 million unique monthly visitors.
He divided six months of job searches by generation, based on resume data, into four groups: skilled jobs (routine or not) and manual labour (repetitive or not).
Over half, 51.2 percent, of baby boomers (characterised here as 53 to 71) were drawn to routine-heavy or "automation-prone" openings. But millennials (20 to 36) were close behind: 49.8 percent were attracted to such work. Among Gen Xers (37 to 52), the figure was slightly lower at 49 percent.
But employment in those and similar routine jobs appears to be stagnating, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Older generations in the Indeed sample were more interested in what economists call "routine manual" jobs, such as roles on an assembly line. Putting together cars, for example or building furnaces fit that description.
Twenty percent of baby boomers clicked on these openings, while 18.9 percent of Gen Xers and 15.7 percent of millennials showed interest.
But millennials gravitated toward other kinds of jobs that also carry a risk of automation. Among the age groups, they expressed the most interest in "routine cognitive" work (34.2 percent, compared to baby boomers' 31.2 percent and Gen Xer's 30.1 percent). These jobs typically require more education than blue-collar labor - though they still follow patterns. Think sales and administrative jobs.
And as of today, many remain high-paying jobs - a compelling reason to keep pursuing them.
Data from the Labor Department show sales representatives in services made an annual mean wage of $70 500 last year. Insurance sales agents banked $67 000. (Engine assemblers, by comparison, took home about $43 000, and assemblers and fabricators, in general, bagged $33 600.)
"Disappearing jobs can be a frightening concept and it's impossible to know exactly what jobs are 'safe,' “the Indeed report concluded, "but workers can prepare themselves by building up transferable, non-routine skills that can be applied to a wide array of occupations."
The consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted this year that 38 percent of American jobs could be automated by 2030. Financial, insurance, manufacturing, information and communications - a wide swath of sectors that rely on rigid systems fit that description, the report found.
"Workers in high automation risk industries such as transport and manufacturing spend a much greater proportion of their time engaged in manual tasks that require physical exertion and/or routine tasks such as filling forms or solving simple problems," the PWC report asserts. "In contrast, in lower automation risk industries such as education, there is an increased focus on social and literacy skills."
Understanding the future labor climate is difficult because practically every job has some component a robot could theoretically handle, said Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute who studies automation trends. McKinsey projects that half of work activities could be automated by 2055.
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"Roughly all of us will have automation affect what we do at work," Chui said. "Even if our job doesn't go away, pieces of our job will be automated."
For example, he said, sales automation tools are cropping up, streamlining processes that used to take humans longer.
"Does that mean we need fewer sales people, or does that mean what an individual does will change over time?" Chui said.
Young folks should take roles that interest them, he said, while knowing they'll probably have to update their skills throughout their career.
Automation has already zapped approximately 31,000 legal jobs, most of them administrative, a report last year found. It also has lowered the need for junior associates, who used to take on more administrative roles. (Highly skilled lawyers, though, the type with expansive experience, are growing in value.)
"Now automation is chipping away at contract document review with technologies," said Tom Davenport, co-author of "Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines." "That takes away a typical fallback role for someone not able to get a job at a law firm."
Not that millennials are economically doomed. The top five occupations they favoured in the Indeed report are non-routine jobs, including health-care support roles at hospitals and nursing homes, which are projected to grow 23 percent from 2014 to 2024.