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AI Will Cut Workload for Some Jobs; Losses Would Vary


With its abilities to answer questions, perform research, generate content, and perform other human-like tasks, fears that artificial intelligence (AI) could threaten some jobs and industries aren’t unfounded. But similar to past technological revolutions, AI isn’t likely to cause widespread job losses, and could eventually help stimulate the labor market, a report from Wells Fargo Economics concluded.

Key Takeaways

  • A Well Fargo Economics report found that past technological revolutions, like the Internet adoption of the 1990s, helped contribute to higher employment trends.
  • Studies show that AI can perform part of some jobs, perhaps all of a few, but also that new technology often creates jobs that previously hadn’t been imagined.
  • Slow labor-force growth in the U.S. means that AI could help meet the increasing need for more workers.

Acknowledging that some industries and occupations could indeed be rendered obsolete by AI, the four-part report showed that past technological revolutions failed to cause the widespread labor-market disruptions that some feared.

Looking at the Internet revolution of the 1990s, the report noted that in the period between business-cycle peaks in July 1990 and March 2001, payrolls grew an average of 1.8% a year, adding about 23 million jobs. 

“History is rife with examples of groups that have opposed technological change due to fears of widespread job losses,” Wells Fargo Chief Economist Jay Bryson and others wrote in the analysis. “Time and again, however, aggregate levels of employment and income have risen in the aftermath of the introduction of the new technology.”

AI Poses Threat to Some ‘White-Collar’ Jobs, but Labor Market Proves Resilient

Studies of how much work could be accomplished by generative AI vary. The Wells Fargo report cited a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania with OpenAI and OpenResearch, which determined that 80% of workers could have at least 10% of their tasks done with generative AI, and 19% of workers could have 50% or more of their job covered by AI.

Another look from consulting firm McKinsey & Co. found that the share of time spent on work tasks that could be automated through AI or other technology amounted to 60% to 70%.

“White-collar” jobs are likely to face the most exposure to the technology, the report noted. Case in point, one study found that some jobs most threatened by AI include telemarketers, political scientists, mediators, judges, psychologists, and postsecondary teachers in foreign languages, history, and law. The least threatened: cement masons, roofers and welders.

So far, predictions about the impacts of automation haven’t panned out. Wells Fargo pointed to a 2013 paper from Oxford University that forecast 47% of U.S. employment was at risk to automation over the next decade or two that failed to foresee the current labor market where the unemployment rate of 3.5% has hovered around record lows.

Slower Adoption of Technology Can Preserve Jobs

Another trend that’s likely to help preserve the labor market is that while technological development can happen quickly, widespread adoption can take more time, allowing transitions in the workforce to happen more gradually. With AI, factors as varied as government regulation to hardware costs to labor union strikes could help slow uptake of the technology enough to give the labor market time to transition. 

The report also noted that technology like AI might help to fill the gap that a slowdown in the growth of the labor force has created. Estimates show that the U.S. labor force is expected to grow by 0.5% a year from 2023 to 2033, about half the pace of the past 30 years. 

The structural slowdown in the labor supply, which includes weak growth of the working-age population and smaller gains in labor-force participation, means that more workers will be needed and, in some cases, workers will need to do more, all of which could be accomplished by AI. 

Most likely, the report said, AI would create jobs as others are replaced, noting that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that 60% of the job roles performed in 2018 hadn’t yet been created in 1940.

“Making the widespread displacement of jobs the base case risks us joining a long historical record of commentators who have rung the alarm bell about surging unemployment due to new inventions that seemed unbelievable to the humans of the time,” it said.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.