A new report predicts that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation. The study, compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, says that advances in AI and robotics will have a drastic effect on everyday working lives, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution. In the US alone, between 39 and 73 million jobs stand to be automated — making up around a third of the total workforce.

But, the report also states that as in the past, technology will not be a purely destructive force. New jobs will be created; existing roles will be redefined; and workers will have the opportunity to switch careers. The challenge particular to this generation, say the authors, is managing the transition. Income inequality is likely to grow, possibly leading to political instability; and the individuals who need to retrain for new careers won’t be the young, but middle-aged professionals.

As with previous studies on this topic, there’s much to be said for taking a skeptical view. Economic forecasting is not an exact science, and McKinsey’s researchers are keen to stress that their predictions are just that. The figure of 800 million jobs lost worldwide, for example, is only the most extreme of possible scenarios, and the report also suggests a middle estimate of 400 million jobs.

Nevertheless, this study is one of the most comprehensive in recent years, modeling changes in more than 800 occupations, and taking in some 46 countries, accounting for 90 percent of world GDP. Six nations are also analyzed in detail — the US, China, Germany, Japan, India, and Mexico — with these countries representing a range of economic situations and differently organized workforces.

A few highlights:

  • Automation will impact mostly Western countries. As an example, only 9% in India compared to 26% in Japan.
  • Up to 375 million people may need to switch occupational categories with the highest share in advanced economies.
  • If displaced workers are not reemployed quickly, countries will face rising unemployment and depressed wages. Unless retraining efforts are being implemented quickly, wage polarization in advanced countries could continue.
  • Business and policymakers will need to act to keep people working as automation is adopted.
  • Magnitude of potential job dislocation from automation through 2030 is not unprecedented. However, with a lack of innovation in policy and debt-laden countries major political responses are rather unlikely.
  • Technology displaces some work but creates new jobs, sometimes in unforeseen ways.
  • The global trend of aging population will create new and additional labor demand for health care.
  • “Marketization” of unpaid work could create new jobs.

The report closes:

“For society as a whole, machines can take on work that is routine, dangerous, or dirty, and may allow us all to use our intrinsically human talents more fully and enjoy more leisure. Yet even as we bene t, our societies will need to prepare for complex transitions ahead, as machines replace workers in many areas. Our research suggests that it may be time to refocus the current anxious debate about automation toward issues of demand growth, and how to manage the inevitable transitions created by automation. The task at hand is to prepare for a more automated future by emphasizing the skills that will be needed and ensuring dynamic job creation. The technology is advancing rapidly; the policy choices should not tarry.”