On the Digital Age

Goodbye paper and paperwork jobs

From reading the newspapers and watching TV you might have picked up the impression that in a few years millions of professional drivers will be unemployed. Robots will have taken over everywhere, they'll be driving taxis, serving coffee in Starbucks and taking our children out on dates.


Maybe one day much of that will come to pass, but the robots are late. Not only are they late, but we're not ready for them. Modern planes don't really need pilots, they can take off and land automatically. Already they cruise on auto. They've been able to do this for years and yet nobody has ever tried to get rid of the pilots. We have one or two driverless trains, for example the Docklands Light Railway in London, yet they're an exception. A handful of driverless cars roam the streets of the USA. It's a technology that might be suitable for ploughing fields or delivering freight to depots, but it can't even handle delivering a pizza, at least not to your door.

All this big stuff is decades away. The big question is what's immediately around the corner? Is my job safe or is it going to be automated next week?

Oddly, automation is a red herring. Unless you're an assembly worker in China in which case it's more of an ogre. But in the West most jobs that can be automated have already gone, and the rest have been exported. The robot threat is more of a scare story to keep wages down. We might see a few more driverless trains, possibly automatic shuttle taxis taking on Uber, but nothing too dramatic. The big changes over the next decade will be a continuation of what's been happening since 2000.

So what's been happening since 2000? It's not quite what you'd expect. Machines haven't been directly replacing humans. Instead we've been changing the way we handle information, moving it from paper to screen. The big job losses have been secretarial and support, including PAs. We no longer need stuff typed, and in any case we can now use a keyboard ourselves. Book-keepers and filing clerks are going the way of history. Some sales agents have disappeared, from travel, insurance and finance. Librarians are in decline along with their books.

There's a theme and it's paper and paperwork. If your job involved lots of paper then it's gone or it's going. Rolled tree-pulp and ink is going the way of the slate tablet. You can measure how safe your job is by how much paper is involved. From a paper-mill to newspapers to filing receipts. If there's paper involved then it's time to write your CV as an electronic file.

In the space of fifteen years the West has greatly reduced its printing paper consumption, by around 3-5% a year. Estimates vary and there's no definitive source, but we can safely say it's a rapid decline. At some point it will flatten off. That's not happened yet. Our reduction in printed paper is one of the most significant elements of the early Digital Age.

It's been our favourite medium of record for hundreds of years. And now it's not.

Don't worry about a robot taking your job, but do worry if you handle a lot of paper.


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