IF there are two truths that are universally acknowledged, they are that western populations are ageing and that more jobs are likely to be automated. But how will those two trends interact? That is the focus of a new report called “The Twin Threats of Aging and Automation”, a collaboration between Marsh & McLennan’s Global Risk Centre, Mercer, and Oliver Wyman. The study looks at 15 countries and concludes that Asian workers are most at risk (see chart).
By 2050, the UN estimates that more than a third of the world’s population will be over 50, up from less than 16% in 1950. As a proportion of the working-age population, those aged between 50 and 64 already make up more than 30% of the workforce in Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan. In part this is because changes in pension benefits mean that older workers can no longer afford to retire early; since the turn of the millennium, the effective retirement age has risen from 62 to 64 in the OECD.
But there is a potential clash here. Studies suggest that the adoption of robots is greater in countries which are ageing more rapidly. Older workers may want a job but find that robots take their place. Part of the problem is their skills; a survey by the OECD found that only 10% of adults aged 55-65 were able to complete new multiple-step technological tasks, compared with 42% of those aged 25 to 54.
The study found that countries with more low-skilled older workers in automatable occupations (repetitive admin work in an office or manual machine operation) tended to be where the older population is growing fastest. Five of the top six countries where workers are most at risk are in Asia, although the risks are pretty high across the board. In China, the number of workers aged between 50 and 64 is expected to rise 128% between 2015 and 2030.
In part, this is because Asian developing countries have a lot of jobs at the low end of the value chain, where automation is easiest to do. Countries with more educated older people have lower automation risks.
Is there any hope? Studies have found that grizzled veterans tend to outperform younger workers in semantic memory, and language and speech skills. They are also less likely to leave their jobs. So the trick will be to find new tasks for the oldsters to accomplish, and to make sure they get the extra training needed to do them.
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