In the automated future of work, women could gain—or lose—the most

Brave new world.
Brave new world.
Image: Reuters/Murad Sezer
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Amazon opened its first cashierless grocery store today, in Seattle, reminding us that robots are coming for the jobs of millions of people.

In the United States alone, the careers of 1.4 million people are expected to be disrupted by technology, and other factors, by 2016, according to a new study by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Towards a Reskilling Revolution: A Future of Jobs for All, published yesterday (Jan. 22). But almost all of those employees could find new occupations through comprehensive job retraining programs, the authors report.

The WEF estimates that with retraining, 96% of the most immediately at-risk US workers would find decent jobs that offer higher wages. What’s more, spending two years to retrain for a new position could to lead to an average annual salary increase of $15,000.

Women could gain the most from a broad, concerted effort to give today’s employees future-ready job skills, according to the report, which is based on an analysis of nearly 1,000 job types, and data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. It could lead to a bump in pay for 74% of all currently at-risk women, while offering the same for only 53% of men.

“This trend points to a potential convergence in women and men’s wages among the groups that make job transitions,” the authors write. But their modeling allows for wage cuts as well as increases. Adapting to a new reality might mean less for everyone.

The rosier picture for women also presupposes that a mass reshuffling of jobs and skills would buck historical trends, in which women have earned less, and left the workforce in greater numbers than men.

There’s another huge caveat to the report’s core finding that almost all at-risk workers could transition into new jobs: This so-called reskilling revolution would require that  70% of affected workers—men and women—retrain to enter a new career.

For example, in one scenario, a cashier who earns $22,000 per year, might leave a sales jobs to become a barista, earning $21,000, and from there move into becoming a food services manager, taking home $56,000. Or that same cashier could train to become a travel industry ticket agent, earning an average of $38,000.

For the average employee, retraining could open the door to 48 viable options for job transitions, half of which would come with higher salaries.

But if there is no large-scale effort to retrain workers displaced by technology, only 2% of US workers would be in a position to jump to a new job when the robots take over, according to the WEF. Sixteen percent of workers would hit a complete dead end, without any prospects for transitioning, and about 25% of the workforce would have one to three new roles to choose from.

In this darker version of the future, women have the most to lose, partially because 57% of the US jobs identified as being “at risk” belong to women. Women are already underrepresented in high-growth areas of the economy. For instance, there are about 164,000 at-risk female secretaries and administrative assistants in the US, but about 90,000 at-risk male assembly-line workers.

On average, if male workers are not retrained for a new job, they’d still have a more options to choose from, compared to women, were their current jobs eliminated.

If anything survives the age of automation, it may be the gender pay gap.