The biggest winners — and losers — in the coming AI job apocalypse


As the wave of artificial intelligence continues to disrupt the white-collar job market, it is estimated that nearly 1 billion knowledge workers worldwide will be affected, with 14 million jobs expected to be eliminated. However, amidst this disruption, there is some positive news for blue-collar jobs. Industries that require skilled trades, manual labor, and a combination of physical, knowledge, and social work are not expected to be upended. In fact, as other long-term trends take hold, many of these working-class roles are poised for significant growth.

With a large number of older Americans retiring, there will be open job positions that need to be filled. Additionally, the increasing demand for healthcare, green energy, high-tech manufacturing, and construction will contribute to a job boom in blue-collar sectors. While artificial intelligence may replace certain tasks, it will not replace the necessity of jobs such as nurses, technicians, and plumbers who play a crucial role in keeping the economy running.

This shift in the economy could be a positive development for the working class. In the past, factory jobs declined, leading to a sense of undignified job-seeking and monotonous work. However, today there is hope for American blue-collar jobs. Industries like semiconductor manufacturing are facing a shortage of skilled workers, and this shortage extends to other working-class industries as well. The tight labor market and low unemployment rates have driven up wages for lower- and middle-income workers, resulting in a job boom in the working class. There are currently 9.6 million job openings nationwide, leading economists to describe the situation as "full employment."

Looking ahead, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the fastest-growing occupations over the next decade will be in healthcare, transportation, renewable energy, and high-tech manufacturing. This indicates a positive outlook for blue-collar jobs and highlights the importance of these roles in shaping the new economy.  

According to recent analyses, nearly half of all job gains will come from the healthcare and social support sectors. By 2032, one out of every six new workers will be in roles such as home health or personal-care aides. The construction industry, which has been adding 15,000 jobs per month over the past year, also has room for further growth.

Although the manufacturing sector as a whole is expected to remain stable, certain segments within it are projected to expand. For instance, spending in the electrical equipment and semiconductor industry has tripled in the past five years, reaching $200 billion per year. This growth is expected to continue, with the industry forecasted to achieve 3% annual growth over the next decade. Chip manufacturing, in particular, is considered a national priority and is set to create a significant number of well-paid jobs that require only a high-school education.

While automation poses a potential threat to some working-class jobs, there have been positive developments across the board for lower-wage workers. Despite the initial impact of the pandemic, real wages for blue-collar, non-managerial, and lower- and middle-wage workers have risen, outpacing inflation. In fact, real wages are higher now than they were before the pandemic. Additionally, steady improvements can be observed in economic indicators such as the poverty rate, which has fallen from 14.8% to 11.5% over the past decade, and the net worth of households in the bottom 50% of Americans, which has increased by more than 45% since before the pandemic.

Assuming a recession is avoided, the continuation of a tight labor market is expected to further drive up wages, reduce the poverty rate, and boost household income and net worth. The adoption of artificial intelligence is also anticipated to enhance these jobs, potentially leading to increased productivity growth over the next decade. Given that housing scarcity remains a major issue in the United States, higher labor productivity in the construction industry would contribute to overall economic growth.

When examining the impact of AI, studies have found that jobs involving a high level of personal interaction and nonroutine physical tasks are less likely to be disrupted. This conclusion aligns with projections made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, McKinsey, and the World Economic Forum, which analyzed thousands of tasks across various occupations to assess their susceptibility to AI-driven automation.  

"What characterizes the physical labor jobs that are safe for the next five or 10 years are things that are in an unpredictable physical environment," Kweilin Ellingrud, a McKinsey Global Institute director, told me. "If it's in a predictable physical environment, and it's repetitive, then either a robot — likely even before generative AI — or some sort of generative AI can create the automation to do that well."

One influential explanation for this is known as skill-biased technological change, a theory that says routine roles that are susceptible to automation and computerization will see declining wages, while nonroutine roles that require dexterity or human interaction will see increased demand and wages.  

That's what recent research has found: Jobs such as air-conditioning installer, teacher, and hairdresser — jobs that are not routine — will be relatively unscathed over the next five to 10 years. Research led by OpenAI found that 4% of workers, including painters, carpenters, and roofers, had zero tasks that could be influenced by AI. And even though technology could infiltrate more of these roles, they fundamentally cannot be replaced by machines. Ellingrud said, "Even though we have Roombas, we still have house cleaners because the Roomba can only do so much and isn't all that effective." 

Instead of replacing these jobs, AI will likely benefit from specific roles by making it easier to do the most routine parts of the job. Nurses, for example, could spend less time collecting and entering information into a medical record system. For an industry notorious for high hourly billing rates, allowing nurses to redeploy their time on more critical tasks — such as taking care of patients — would save Americans billions in annual healthcare costs. Similarly, the construction industry could benefit from new technology such as AI drones to do inspections or AI sensors that measure things, freeing up workers to do more.

"You may get a bifurcation within these groups where the hands-on physical work remains, but generative AI picks up and substitutes for a lot of the management supervising," Muro told me. He added: "There are these jobs that are in a middle ground where the physical work may remain but the supervision might be more exposed." But instead of replacing workers, this kind of integration could help these types of roles be more productive, have more demand, and earn more money. 

Safe ground

Blue-collar jobs are not only safe from AI's impact but also physically safer with the tech. AI's adoption in the workplace can help improve safety via real-time monitoring of risks and alerts for equipment issues or injuries. Each year in the US, there are 2.7 million workplace injuries and over 5,000 deaths as a result of workplace accidents, so any improvements would be significant. 

Though many of these working-class jobs may be physically or emotionally laborious, they are durable for the future. Broadly speaking, the jobs that will come out on top of the AI shuffle are good-quality jobs that provide steady work hours, upward mobility, and career support, as well as "fair compensation and a degree of voice," Muro said.  

As the economy gets increasingly precarious because of AI, the winners of this AI revolution will not need to swim a technological triathlon against oncoming waves — they will already be on elevated terrain, safely and skillfully working away.

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