Deskilling 4.0? How Office Jobs Look Like in 2020

By Stephan Manning.

Not long ago, many in the U.S. and Western Europe feared the loss of white-collar jobs through offshoring and outsourcing. Now, experts predict the replacement of office jobs worldwide through smart technology. According to a study by World Economic Forum (WEF), which was prepared for the annual meeting in Davos last weekend, around five Million office jobs across major economies will be made redundant by 2020 through advanced technology. For the same reason, new tech start-ups will require less and less staff, according to WEF founder Klaus Schwab. Some call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the fusion of technologies, and use of artificial intelligence to process the internet and big data. To illustrate, twenty years ago, preparing for legal cases would require law firms to process masses of legal documents by their own staff. Ten years ago, some of that work would have been gradually outsourced to legal process outsourcing firms in India and other developing countries employing lower-cost skilled labor. Now, legal documents are increasingly analyzed by data processing software semi-automatically. Are we seeing a new wave of ‘deskilling’ – the devaluation of human labor through technology? While many jobs might be replaced entirely, affecting in particular the developing world, the WEF report suggests that also two Million new jobs will be created, especially for high-skilled software engineers. But that may not be the whole story. I discuss another type of ‘job’ that is likely to emerge – the semi-skilled ad-hoc office worker who cleans up the mess smart robots leave behind.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, August 16, 2010. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)

To some extent, the fourth industrial revolution is not so different from previous waves of automation – in manufacturing and logistics – especially in terms of how it may impact human jobs. Like in the case of machinery in manufacturing, human experts will always be needed to develop and upgrade complex technological systems. The problem is that most new ‘smart digital solutions’, e.g. for legal processing, tech support, accounting etc., will not be entirely automatic but semi-automatic – leaving a lot of ‘stuff to do’ for humans to get the job done. And this ‘stuff’ requires some skills, but can be tedious at times. To illustrate, I will take as an analogy my observations of a Royal Mail processing facility in the UK back in 1998 – where mail was scanned, sorted and transported ‘almost’ automatically, and my recent experiences with the semi-automatic lost & found service at Berlin Tegel Airport. Much of what I keep seeing in logistics foreshadows what many office and administrative jobs will look like in 2020.

Making systems work. No matter how intelligent new data processing systems are, making them work in practice will always create work for humans. Whether it is putting in place conveyor belts and scanning units for processing mail, or installing new software to process legal documents, new systems will never start ‘running’ right away, but they need to be installed, tested, maintained, adjusted, and upgraded. Also, users need to be trained how to use a system and how to interpret data produced by the system. Yet, every new system will produce errors which can be frustrating for daily users. I remember my own frustration when using the new lost & found system at Tegel Airport two weeks ago, which would email me repeatedly “Your bag has not been located yet”, which apparently was not true at all. And since systems tend to get outdated soon, they will need to be replaced by updates and upgrades, which produce new errors users need to deal with. Managing transitions and handling errors will be mainly the job of IT service and tech support staff – but it will cause disruptions every user needs to deal with.

Troubleshooting. Even when systems work in principle, there might be power cuts, crashes, viruses, or other reasons for systems to stop working. When robots or conveyor belts refuse to operate, humans will need to jump in and not only fix the system but also get the job done by hand – whether it is carrying mail from A to B, or process digital data by hand to satisfy client demands. For example, what if a legal processing software fails to produce useful input for particular court cases, maybe because the software version is too old to handle certain documents, but lawyers are running out of time and need something to work with fast. In those situations it is likely that office staff will jump in and ‘be creative’ in processing such data by hand until a software update comes along to do the job in the future. Unless of course such system flaws are too costly to fix which would create a permanent emergency situation.

Entering dirty data. No digital system can process everything. For example, while digital scanning units at Royal Mail back in 1998 were able to read ‘most’ hand-written addresses on envelopes and postcards, there was always the curious rest – those almost impossible-to-read scribbles only humans may – or may not – be able to decipher. Perhaps one of the most thankless jobs I have ever seen. Dirty data will be a similar problem in semi-automated offices of tomorrow. Take for example old handwritten legal documents which might or might not be important inputs for legal cases. Data processing software might not be able to read them, or worse: it may misread them and give out false information. Or take the example of names from different languages which use certain letters a system cannot read or save properly. No matter how advanced a system is, such ‘exceptions’ will continue to create work – and often cause frustration – for humans.

Connecting the disconnected. Digital systems are never ‘complete’ – they need inputs from human beings or from systems that involve humans and they produce outputs which become inputs for others. For example, conveyor belts at Royal Mail, which transported mail packages, would always end somewhere. Sometimes they connected directly to other processing units, but sometimes they did not. I observed that, beside reading unreadable mail addresses, another ‘important’ human job at this mail processing facility was to carry packages from one conveyor belt to another one – simply because there was no connection between the two and because it was probably too costly to implement a better connected system. The same may happen in semi-automatic offices. For example, whereas future software may produce automatic accounting or financial reports, who will then email, print and carry them to various people for signatures? To some extent, carrying reports from A to B will probably always remain a human assistant job, because automating it would be too difficult and costly.

Handling complaints. No matter how automated processes become, the end client will always be human. And humans complain for a variety of reasons – because expectations are not met, deliverables are missing or delayed, quality is lacking. While complaint handling is to some extent a process like any other, there is an emotional element to it that can hardly be provided entirely by digital systems, e.g. automatic response routines, especially if a complaint is about the very flaws of an existing system. For example, I got furious after feeling ill-informed by the automatic emails from the lost & found system at Tegel Airport, so that a human being took over my complaint and assured me that the bag will actually be delivered. It is therefore likely that complaint management – from taking a complaint to working out a solution to handle it – will make an even greater proportion of human work.

In sum, the reality of work in semi-automated offices of the year 2020 may require a new form of semi-skilled, ad-hoc office worker: sufficiently tech-savvy assistants who can ‘jump in’ whenever technology falls short or ceases to cooperate. We may require assistants at the back-end – where data and tasks are entered and processed – and front-end – where results are delivered to users and clients. Yet, whether all those troubleshooting and complaint handling tasks will turn into new jobs is questionable. They might as well ‘expand’ existing jobs – of IT service staff, executive assistants, and expert users of smart software. In any case, office workers will become increasingly dependent on smart, but incomplete and imperfect software systems. In the future we may face a reality where we try, in the name of efficiency, to outsource more and more tedious office work to smart digital systems, but these systems may continue to delegate tedious work back to us humans. Welcome to 2020!

Picture taken from:

Other interesting blogs on this topic:

Ivana Kottasova (Jan 18 2016): “Technology could kill 5 million jobs by 2020” (CNN Money)

Chuck Robbins (Jan 19 2016): “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is Still About People and Trust” (Cisco Blogs)

Jeremy Rifkin (Jan 14 2016): “The 2016 World Economic Forum Misfires With Its Fourth Industrial Revolution Theme” (

Anri van der Spuy (Jan 22 2016): “Who will be invited to the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” (LSE Media Policy Project Blog)


13 thoughts on “Deskilling 4.0? How Office Jobs Look Like in 2020

  1. Technology has advanced our lives in many ways and companies have been increasing the use of tech services to run the operations for various reasons such as ease of use, lower long-term costs, fewer employment issues and so on. With increasing population and high competitions in the job markets, people are already having a difficult time getting jobs. Technological advancements will only make it harder. Just as the paper stated, although it is going to create two million new jobs, it is going to replace many jobs especially in the developing countries. People in these countries rely on going to work everyday to support life, and it is their jobs that are going to be taken away. The jobs that are going to be created require skilled employees who not only have to have knowledge on the particular field of job, but also have to be able to oversee technical errors and be able to solve them. People in the developing countries are not as skilled as workers from the developed nations, which is another concern of them because their jobs will be replaced but they would not have the skills to work for the jobs that are going to be created. I agree with you about the need for human labor force to maintain and manage the technological systems, but it is only for those who are skilled or semi-skilled and it will create undesirable consequences for the unskilled labor.

  2. My own meager scholarship lies in the leadership aspects over the past century, dealing with these changes. I suggest four eras of change in how leadership is conceived – transactional, transformational, transcultural, and the one we are entering – transhuman. The transhuman era for leaders will be which capital interests will occupy more of their time – assets in the form of capital, IP, IT, and politic clout or assets in terms of labor, cash flow, and property.

    In keeping with Manning’s views and questions, we are moving towards an age where those who lack the cognitively ability to learn higher order skills will enjoy less productive lives, unless political/economic cultures transform. Typically societies transform to meet economics, not the other way around. I fear we are entering a sustained period of pain as move from a labor-based capitalist world, to an asset-based capitalist world.

  3. I have to agree to a certain extent about the technologies taking over human jobs. I don’t think they will take over completely, I think they could take over certain skills but again like the article said that some people require that human service versus a machine. For example, there are many of those machines taking over their hospitals setting, I think it’s called the pill/medicine machine that walk down the hall way transporting it from one place to another which is good but what if you needed it as soon as possible. Or the kiosk where it tells people where to go but sometimes people require that direction from a person. Machines/ technologies could provide a certain work to a certain extent, but with good things come negatives outcomes. For example, we have become victims of machines crashing down on us and humans need to be the one fixing it.

  4. I fully agree: The basic error in the prognoses of job losses appears to be thinking from the end of technological possibilities and underestimating the share of human problem-solving even in (supposedly) lower-end jobs – I suspect a certain technological arrogance.
    German colleagues Sabine Pfeiffer and Anne Suphan have provided a neat analysis:
    However, keeping or rendering these remaining jobs decent will require conscious and deliberate efforts by companies, policy, unions and workers – and this is more important than scaring one another with horrific figures.

  5. I second you. in 2020 many jobs will be gone because-
    1. Technology
    2. outsourcing
    Modern Technologies are a revolution. They are taking jobs from the people but again technologies are not humans. They can make mistake and companies needs human to fix the issue.
    Example- These days many restaurants have tablets kept on the tables. Customer can place the oder through the tablets. This way the job of the server is decreasing. But even then the restaurants need server because many times the tablet does not work, so in order to keep the restaurant running they need servers.
    Technology is booming and trying to take away the jobs, but i am sure humans will be needed at each and every step to make sure that the technology does not make an error.

  6. The article provides a compelling argument that an increased automation in offices in the future (for example by the year 2020) would require staff that can understand and implement technology to suit to the expected new norm. Accordingly, smart technology would result in a loss of five million ordinary jobs, but could create two million tech savvy new jobs that demand relatively higher salaries. Thus, the future needs of an office performance would involve high capital investments to justify the future needs of the consumers.
    Sometimes, advances in technology appear not as helpful as evidenced from the examples of Climateinc’s CVS self-checkout, or Hissah’s Comcast phone answering experience. However, it can be argued that the skills of staff handling the equipment should match advances in office automation. For example, US mail keeps on delivering the same letters with wrong addresses, multiple times. even when they were supposed to be returned to the sender. Such instances happen as the mail handlers in the sorting centers fail to implement the instructions due to lack of familiarity to handle the technology available to them. There is a lack of ability to ‘connect the disconnected’. The US mail experience appears similar to the post office experiences in UK and Germany described in the article. Thus, automation of office equipment can yield desirable results when the offices are staffed with tech savvy personal.

  7. Jefferson Barros
    Great article! In my opinion I don’t believe that robots will take over jobs by 2020. I do believe that they will play a major part in our society as you mentioned but like you said humans need to be around in case of malfunctions.

    I also believe that jobs will always be created regardless if there are robots taking over. Even though there are many jobs which have become electronic and others obsolete, new jobs will be created as well as handled by humans.

    For example, I used to work for Longwood Pediatrics in Boston, MA as a medical records clerk for 2 years handling health forms but in my third year working there legislatures passed a law that all medical records needed to become electronic. Make a long story short the medical records department was no longer needed because the doctors were now able to file records through their tablet devices.

    Does that mean I’ve never found a job since then? No, it just meant that I had to look into a different field and apply for new positions. In the end, there will be jobs will become obsolete while new innovative jobs are being created thus leaving humans with other jobs and tasks that needs to be done regardless of robots being around to assist with those jobs.

  8. Hissah ALshiha
    I don’t think new technology might takes some jobs away because technology is so complicated and need a lot of improvements. Customers like simplicity and when robots communicate with them they feel lost. For instance, as Comcast customers I always call to speak with a representative. I really don’t get the part where we have to be stuck with them automated answering machine. Human system is so important and if someone want to pay their bill they will not call to pay because they can use the internet, so what’s the point of hearing “to pay your bill, press 1, for recent transactions, press 2 etc..” Of course customers have serious issues and I think everyone can pay their bill online. Therefore, companies will defiantly need humans’ involvement to satisfy their customers. No one like to speak to a machine because they simply need special codes and special words to process. Thus, no matter what I think in the coming years businesses will hire workers because the new technology will become so complicated. Besides, as mentioned in the article there are many problems that can be solved only by experts such as power cuts, crashes and viruses.
    On the other hand, if we look at the positive effect of creating robots will create jobs because they will need human system to be created. As a result, more jobs will be there for people who know about technology and how to invent new technology. So for us what we need to do is to learn more about technology by keeping track of the new technology around the world. Because one day our jobs might be all about technology, not just emails and computer systems but something more complicated than that.

  9. Robots taking over our jobs by 2020 is going to be untrue in most cases. For instance, if delivery is customized which means it is client-specific, it would be difficult to make it a routine process and customizing it would be difficult and costly. The bottom line of any business is profits and pushing technology to the forefront comes with cost and benefit analysis and with unintended consequences which could affect efficiency and effectiveness hence productivity. We know if this leads to fall in productivity our standard of living would be compromised, and any thing which leads to negative productivity should be discouraged. However, there is always a good side to a story: Is it possible this process could reduce labor costs, how about capital on equipment and machine and maintenance.
    Let’s look at valuation process at a municipal office in Massachusetts and how technology could help in the assessment process. It is possible information could be processed into knowledge for the general market area for the appraisal of universe of properties but for a single property it might be difficult I think. So, this new process I think would create new problems and new jobs and new ideas but costs and productivity would determine its success or failure.

  10. A couple of comments –
    1. The control of failures in human systems – such as a set of lawyers struggling to find the relevant legal documents – can be fixed very easily by human beings, but with a failure in a computerized system, the fixes require so much specialized support that the cost of failure rises exponentially. The example in the previous comment about CVS bringing real people back as cashiers is a case in point. Further, having human employees largely bereft of the required skills trying to rectify the failure of a computer system (possessing those skills) would drive up the cost further, because they can’t do what the human employees in the past that the computers have replaced could as a matter of course.

    2. The enhancement of existing jobs is quite questionable. Again, in agreement with the previous comment, technology could serve to turn these jobs into commodities more than ever before, as a 2020s analogy to the mass-produced coders or “cyber coolies” of India in the 1990s and the 2000s, resulting in even lower wages and standards of living for these individuals. A few people may do very well at the cost of many others who land up doing much worse.

  11. You are arguing that new technology leaves us with more interesting work than the ‘deskilling’ thesis would have us believe, and that the failures of technology (or the need to update and implement) create a lot of mid-level jobs.

    One recent thing I noticed was that our local CVS (pharmacy/general retail store) brought back real people as cashiers because the robot checkout system was breaking down, too cumbersome for average shoppers, and theft was soaring because it was easy to fool the robots. AS you say, technology was leaving a big mess. Just saw a piece this week about what might happen to millions of folks in transportation as driverless vehicles take over. Yes, some ambulances to clean up the messes, but a lot of jobs will disappear.

    But overall, in my view, automation is likely to take jobs from middle skills, in my view, and leave more folks serving burgers, on the cash till, and cleaning floors, and making hotel beds up, while a managerial/technical elite does software, system design, management and advertising. It’s very hard to automate what most managers do. So technology could have a polarizing impact.

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