Bad news for African farmers—your job is being taken over by a robot. Teachers and pastors are safe, for now

The humble office assistant is also at risk, but the continent’s battalion of money-minting pastors are here to stay, a new study reveals

THE growing of cereals and fibre crops are near-certainties to be taken over by robots, a new study on the risk of job losses to computerisation co-authored by Oxford University academics has found.

The report, Creativity versus Robots, written with UK-based non-profit research and innovation group Nesta, finds that these two occupations are among the least creative, and are therefore prime candidates for automation.

The two jobs, with a computerisation probability of 100% and 91.2% respectively, are among a list of those in line for automation, leaving millions of their holders looking for new ways of putting bread on their tables.

Raising dairy cattle, sheep and goats also comes in high with an 89.3% chance of computerisation, comparable with mixed farming and marine fishing - all major employers in Africa.

At the other end, jobs that require a high level of creativity, defined as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”, are the most loss-proof.

These include artists, web designers and musicians, reassuring many African parents who have often been left distraught as their children ditch “respectable” white-collar jobs for what they consider non-prestigious “hobbies”.

Such office jobs such as auditing and tax consulting fall among those in high danger, as do a raft of others in banking, insurance and monetary intermediation, which have a “medium” probability of automation.

Other creative occupations listed in the study are architects, IT specialists and public relations professionals, as are software developers and biochemical engineers.

“While many barriers to automation have recently been overcome, allowing sophisticated algorithms and autonomous vehicles to substitute for workers in a wide range of domains, creativity arguably still provides a big obstacle to automation,” the authors say.

Indeed, for jobs labelled as creative, technological advances have served to strengthen their ability—musicians are for example increasingly working with computers to test new creative ideas, while architects also rely on sophisticated software.

The study looked at 1,068 different occupational categories in the US and the UK, and condensed them into a final dataset of 702 occupations, which they then categorised into those with high, medium and low probability of creativity.

Those jobs that required either originality, novelty and value or people skills such as persuasion and negotiation, were classified as among the most creative.

Hairdressing and plumbing too, safe

Hairdressing and beauty, gym operations, child day care, passenger transport, sewerage and plumbing, primary and secondary education, religious activities, beer manufacturing and diplomacy were also among those unlikely to be automated. A reason for this is that many either require perception and manipulation in unstructured environments, or the recognition of natural human emotion.

Management and financial occupations were seen as mid-tier, requiring “generalist” tasks such as social intelligence, but also less creative intensity.

Occupations that fell in the low creativity category, and therefore most in danger of automation, include post office activities, office administration, libraries and museums, hotel accommodation, insurance and processing meat, juices, raising poutry, making outerwear and copper production.

“Crucially, we find that creativity is inversely related to computerisability,” the authors said. “None of the jobs at all in the highly creative category are at high risk of automation.”

Highly creative jobs were also likely to be paid more, but not in all cases with musicians and actors in the UK for example learning considerably more than IT and financial managers.

They were also characterised by higher levels of education, but again less so in some of the most creative jobs. “The implication is that wages are seemingly more related to levels of education rather than an occupation’s creative content—a topic worthy of further research,” the authors said.

 The findings could have a major impact on future employments, the added, noting that those economies where creative occupations make up a large proportion of the workforce may be better placed to resist the unemployment fallouts from future advances in computerisation.

Alarm for African governments

It is a study that would alarm many African governments. An International Monetary Fund study  released this week found that some 90% of the 400 million jobs in the low-income countries are in the informal sector—essentially agriculture and self-employment.

To add to the conundrum, the lender advocated for sub-Saharan Africa to create high-productivity jobs—and a rate of 18 million annually until 2035—if it is to absorb the millions of its youths entering the market every year, while raising GDP to levels seen in the East Asian countries.

African policymakers have also centred on increasing agriculture’s share in the economy; a sector that routinely employs up to 80% of their populations. One push under the African Union’s Agenda 2063—the ‘Do Agric’ movement, demands leaders invest more of their public budgets into agriculture, which is projected to lift 85 million people out of extreme poverty by 2024.

At risk—African farmers (Photo/AFP)

But there need not be total panic yet. “Crucially, there is nothing inevitable about the impact of automation on jobs and skills. In fact, history suggests that the impact of new technologies on employment has been very different in time and space,” the academics say, and cite instances where technological advances favoured unskilled labour. 

The study has also focused on the industrialised countries of the UK and US, whose concerns are much less existential and more self-actualisation, But even for them, the findings are of interest.

“[The] polarising effect of computerisation on labour markets has contributed to the historic increases in income inequality observed in countries like the US and UK, and is therefore of considerable political as well as economic importance,” the report notes.

“Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that there has been an explosion of interest in what future technological trends will mean for workforce jobs and what they will imply for policy.” 

But governments—including many African ones which are increasingly plumping for technology and have loudly gone “digital”—will need to be ready for the consequences on labourers— a huge chunk of their electorates— the authors say.

“A key challenge for governments is thus to help workers that are made redundant to transition into novel creative professions”.

Many anguished African parents of budding disc jockeys might find this soothing.

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