Americans think robots will steal jobs, but not theirs

Americans believe the threat of job automation is real. But not for their own jobs.

Americans believe the threat of job automation is real. But not for their own jobs.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Timesl)

After years of hearing about the coming robot boom, most Americans believe that the threat of automation in the workforce is real. But when it comes to their own jobs? Oh, those are definitely safe.

That’s the take-away from a report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center on the public’s views about the future of workforce automation. It surveyed 2,000 adults and found that 65% expect that 50 years from now, robots and computers will do much of the work that’s currently done by humans.

But when it comes to their own positions, they’re not so worried. A much larger share — 80% — expect their occupations to exist five decades from now. “There’s a real disconnect between what people think will happen in the abstract and the extent to which they think it will impact them,” says Aaron Smith, Pew’s associate director of research.


Is it irrational? Narcissistic? Willful ignorance? The report doesn’t say why the disconnect exists. But it did find largely similar trends across demographic groups.

Still, there were differences. Generally, higher percentages of people who were under 50, had a college degree, had higher household incomes or worked in the government, education or nonprofit sectors thought it was unlikely that robots and computers would do much of the work in 50 years that people currently do.

Interestingly, those whose jobs involve manual labor were more likely to think their job would either “definitely” or “probably” exist in 50 years (82%) than those who work as managers or executives (73%). Those bosses might be recalling a recent research report from McKinsey & Co., which showed that while fewer than 5% of occupations could be taken over by robots with currently available technology, CEOs are likely to be more affected by automation than, say, landscapers.

(The right way to think about workforce automation, the McKinsey report said, isn’t how many occupations will be lost to robots, but how many will see some job activities become automated. Some 60% of jobs in the United States could see nearly a third or more of their activities automated, according to the report — and they include professional positions like managers, doctors and financial analysts.)

How many occupations will really be lost to automation, of course, depends on whom you ask, how the question is raised and what time frame is used. Before the McKinsey report, a study from two Oxford economists in 2013 found that 47% of U.S. jobs are at “high risk” of being automated in the next 20 years. Pew’s own research from 2014 found that technology experts were roughly split on whether robotic advances and artificial intelligence would displace more jobs than they create.

For now, Americans don’t put it on their list of short-term worries. The new Pew survey also asked respondents what they thought might cause them to lose their job. Just 11% answered that their employer might replace human workers with machines or software. A few more said perhaps because they can’t keep up their skills, because someone else might do the job for less or the industry overall may shrink.

The most common answer? Just more than a quarter said they were worried about their position because of how poorly their company is managed. For now, at least, the biggest concerns remain quite human, indeed.

Jena McGregor writes a column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.