Intelligent robots. Autonomous vehicles. Cloud computing. As novel technologies become increasingly integrated into our ways of life, we find ourselves on the advent of a new era. Termed the fourth industrial revolution, this rapid transformation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices using smart technology is already revealing its disruptive power, both at the individual and global scale. 


As with previous industrial revolutions, this most recent iteration heralds the potential for new economic growth while raising many pressing concerns about the irreversible loss of human jobs. When production lines became electrified for the first time many factory workers were replaced by machines. What will happen with the onset of automation and artificial intelligence today? 


According to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, twenty-five percent of the U.S. workforce, or 36 million workers, are predicted to be significantly impacted by technological transformations. Concerningly, certain demographics are more likely to be affected than others. Production, food service, and transportation, for instance, are sectors where at least 70% of tasks are susceptible to automation. Yet, these sectors also have the highest concentration of young (ages 16-24) and Hispanic workers. Overall, jobs held by Hispanic workers have the highest (47%) automation potential, followed by Native American (45%), and Black (44%) workers. The onslaught of automated jobs is predicted to affect different places in different ways as well. Smaller, rural communities are more likely to have their jobs affected by automation. According to the Brookings Institution, educational attainment and degree type may become the key determinant of unemployment in both rural and metropolitan areas, furthering pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities. 


However, the challenges presented by the fourth industrial revolution are not insurmountable. Dedicated leaders, scholars, and institutions across the world, including the Center for Social Solutions (CSS), are working to mitigate many of the socioeconomic challenges posed by the fourth industrial revolution.

This word cloud was generated using the titles of papers included in the curated CSS Future of Work Bibliography in an effort to track how researchers, economists, and industry leaders are characterizing the effects of the fourth industrial revolution. "Precarity", "capitalism", "education", and "protection" are some of the more surprising recurrences, suggesting a worker-centric focus as opposed to an employer-centric focus. These keywords indicate that scholarship is prioritizing the dignity of labour and the well-being of workers, with an emphasis on how to better educate and equip workers for the future.


As the adoption of new technology continues to accelerate, especially with the presence of COVID-19, these conversations will become crucial in ensuring the dignity of labor and work for all.



Further Reading

“Work 4.0” by the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (2016)

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond” by Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum

“Automation won’t bring an apocalypse - but that doesn’t mean it will be easy” by Mark Muro, Robert Maxim and Jacob Whiton, Brookings Institute

“Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How machines are affecting people and places” by Mark Muro, Robert Maxim and Jacob Whiton, Brookings Institute

“Jobs lost, jobs gained: What the future of work will mean for jobs, skills, and wages” by James Manyika, Susan Lund, Michael Chui, Jacques Bughin, Jonathon Woetzel, Parul Batra, Ryan Ko, and Saurabh Sanghvi, McKinsey Global Institute