Are the robots coming for white-collar jobs?

Fears around job losses from automation usually centre on blue-collar jobs, but technology is also changing white-collar positions


Automation has long been seen as a threat to blue-collar jobs. However, as the technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, white-collar careers could also feel the impact, affecting everyone from lawyers to CEOs. 

One of the common worries around digital transformation is that many people’s jobs will be automated or replaced by technology in a quest for greater efficiency. According to PwC’s Upskilling Hopes and Fears 2021 survey, 60% of respondents are worried that automation is putting many jobs at risk, and 39% think it’s likely that their job will be obsolete within five years. Last October, a World Economic Forum report said 85 million jobs may be replaced with AI by 2025.

In the past, the jobs seen as at-risk were those that involve a high number of routine or repetitive tasks, often in areas termed “low-skilled”. According to PwC, most jobs that will be lost to automation are routine (such as underwriting), repetitive (like data entry) or dangerous (for example, factory line production). 

However, the reality now is that many “high-skilled” jobs will be affected to varying degrees if technology continues on the current trajectory, says Alexa Greaves, CEO of AAG IT Services. These include nurses, lawyers, legal secretaries, accountants, translators, marketing managers and real estate agents, she says. 

“Professions and skills that are based on accrued knowledge and data-led decisions are all at risk from different levels of automation,” Greaves adds. 

Robots and the law

With US law firms investing $1.5 billion in robotic process automation (RPA) in legal sector offices between 2017 and 2019, the legal profession appears to be embracing the technology - but does this threaten lawyers’ livelihoods? “A robot may be able to produce better legal documents than a human can,” says Greaves, “but a lawyer who has experience in dealing with the subtle, social elements of a case is still a valuable asset.” 

Thanks to automation, lawyers at all stages of their careers will take on less project management, leaving more of their time free for actual legal work. Matt Abbott, president at recruitment firm The Sourcery, says that legal professionals should stay positive. 

“You might not need as many people for those jobs, but someone has to manage the whole process.” The RPA software cannot analyse its own possible flaws or fix itself, so “once there’s an issue with the system or automation, someone has to unravel it completely.” 

Automation and the CEO

Even the CEO position isn’t totally immune to automation. Earlier this year the business editor of the New Statesman, Will Dunn, asked: “CEOs are hugely expensive – why not automate them?” As Dunn notes in the piece, the High Pay Centre’s most recent annual survey of FTSE 100 pay packages points out that “there is actually quite significant potential for companies to safeguard jobs and incomes by asking higher-paid staff to make sacrifices.” 

Professions and skills that are based on accrued knowledge and data-led decisions are all at risk from different levels of automation

So what is the future of the CEO? Victorian McLean, founder and CEO of City CV, suggests they will continue to be in demand, because the role is a complex combination of learned wisdom, intuition and human connection. 

“Highly skilled, highly paid employees are more likely to perform roles that require creative thinking, the ability to develop complex strategies and decision-making, even if they use AI to help them solve problems,” she says. “AI simply can’t handle these functions or mirror the workings of the human brain - right now, at least.” 

Innovations in automation might help us reimagine what a CEO is, but there will always be a need for a leadership position. “We may get rid of the CEO title,” Abbott says, “but that being said, there has to be someone who makes decisions. There is still a need for the human element that has to make the calls. I don’t see too many high-level careers going away with digital transformations. ”

Embracing the digital revolution

So how should these high-powered workers prepare for an automated future in which their jobs remain, but are altered by automation? 

These types of jobs tend to emphasise the skills where humans always excel over the technology we have today or are likely to have in the near future. As Greaves says, “diversifying skillsets and focusing on so-called soft skills that are harder to automate, like communication and teamwork, are likely to be good bets.”

“While robots may be intelligent enough to perform routine tasks, they are not generally intelligent in the way that humans are,” says McLean. “Any creative job - musicians, marketers, inventors - won’t be replaced. It also means jobs like therapists, counsellors, carers - anything that requires a human connection - won’t be replaced.”

The reality is that the workplace and the workforce are continually evolving to incorporate new technology and new ways of thinking. It’s a challenge as old as our concepts of white-collar work. 

“We know that 65% of children in primary school right now will work in jobs that don’t currently exist,” says McLean. “We also know that since the Industrial Revolution, new technologies have changed the working landscape. We’ve lived through 150 years of change. Should we look at AI any differently?” 

Probably not. The workplace will always feel the impact of developing technology, but human beings are endlessly adaptable. Bringing automation into the office will make our working lives better, invent new jobs that fit the future workplace and save all of us some precious time.