World Economic Forum on Asean

Automation and the future of work in Asean

People attending a SkillsFuture Earn and Learn Carnival in Singapore. More than 120,000 people have taken courses, at the end of the initiative's first year. But more needs to be done across Southeast Asia. PHOTO: SPH FILE SPH

Technological revolutions are rolling rapidly across economies one after the other - digitisation, followed by automation, and now, increasingly, the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

These waves of change will disrupt virtually every sector, and utterly change the way many of us work.

The scale of what is happening should not be underestimated.

Globally, about half the activities people are paid to do have the potential to be automated using current demonstrated technology, according to an analysis by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), of more than 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations.

Less than 5 per cent of all occupations have the potential to be automated entirely, but about 60 per cent of all occupations involve at least 30 per cent of tasks that have the potential to be automated by computers and robots.


The proportion of work actually displaced by 2030 will likely be lower.

Our scenarios for 46 countries suggest that between almost zero and one-third of work activities could be displaced by 2030, with a midpoint of 15 per cent.

The proportion varies widely across countries.

Advanced economies are likely to be more affected by automation than developing ones, reflecting the fact that higher wages strengthen the incentive to automate.

Southeast Asian countries could experience displacement of between 16 and 25 per cent of time spent on work tasks in a midpoint automation scenario.

Looking at individual countries, the midpoint is 25 per cent in each of Malaysia and Singapore, 21 per cent in Thailand, and 16 per cent in Indonesia.

Even with automation, the demand for work and workers could increase as economies grow, partly fueled by productivity growth enabled by technological progress.

Rising incomes and consumption especially in developing countries, increasing healthcare for aging societies, investment in infrastructure and energy, and other trends will create demand for work that could help offset the displacement of workers.

Additional investments such as in infrastructure and construction, beneficial in their own right, could be needed to reduce the risk of job shortages in some advanced economies.

Although 4.5 million and 23 million full-time-equivalent jobs could be displaced in Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively, an estimated 3.3 million to 6.6 million, and 27 million to 46 million jobs could be added in these two countries, respectively.

Overall, therefore, broadly enough jobs could be created to replace those lost.

However, to ensure that job creation on this scale happens, governments, businesses, educators, and social leaders need to act together with significant investment and enabling policies.

The implication is that many people will not only change jobs but occupations. Around the world, up to 375 million people may need to transition into new occupations because of automation by 2030.

In Malaysia, the numbers are 2.2 million to 6.8 million people or 38 per cent at the upper end of that range. In Indonesia, between 6.0 million and 29 million (as much as 20 per cent) of people may need to change occupations.


One of the biggest impacts of automation on the workforce will be heightened churn, MGI finds.

Consider, for instance, that by 2030 demand for people with technological skills could account for 17 per cent of all hours worked, up from 11 per cent in 2016 - a rise of 55 per cent.

But, on the flip side, the demand for workers performing basic cognitive tasks including basic data inputting and processing could drop by 15 per cent, from 18 per cent of hours worked to 14 per cent.

As AI penetrates alongside automation, gaps between economies and the workers within them could widen further, reinforcing the current digital divide we observe around the world.

Workers with higher cognitive, digital, and interpersonal skills - and those who are adaptable enough to learn to work alongside machines - are well-positioned to flourish.

But those who perform physical labour or repetitive tasks, and those who lack digital skills, could find themselves vulnerable to unemployment and the reality of stagnating or even falling wages.

Technological change has always created winners and losers among workers and the companies for which they work.

The impending labour-market shifts expected as the result of automation and AI are so large that there is a distinct risk of a social backlash that could hold back the adoption of these technologies and constrain the long term benefits they offer.

One of the thorniest challenges is that the costs and disruption of adopting these technologies come early, but the benefits rather later: pain and then, some years later, gain.

In the case of AI, its contribution to growth may be three or more times higher by 2030 than it is over the next five years.


To ease that pain, governments will need to understand the magnitude of the changes ahead and prepare to manage the transition.

They will need to consider how to provide not only support for displaced workers until they can find a new job but also pathways to new opportunities.

One of the biggest questions is how to scale up effective retraining programs so that millions of mid-career workers have the ability to acquire new skills that will be in demand.

Forward-thinking governments are taking decisive action now.

Singapore's SkillsFuture Initiative, introduced by the Ministry of Education in 2016, provides all citizens aged 25 and above credits worth about $400 to pay for work-skills related courses.

At the end of the initiative's first year, more than 120,000 people, or 4 per cent of the resident population, had taken courses.

But much more needs to be done in the region even at the foundational level of digital and internet skills. In Indonesia, for instance, 52 per cent of schools are still not connected to the internet.

Companies also appear to be getting the message that developing skills is not only -or even primarily - a job for governments.

A recent MGI survey of more than 3,000 business leaders worldwide found new emphasis on continuous learning for workers.

Almost half of those surveyed said that they expected to take the lead in building the workforce for the future.

But, again, there is a way to go. Almost one in three of respondents expressed concern that lacking the skills they need to harness the next wave of technologies will hurt their future financial performance.

The evidence on the potential benefits of digitisation, automation, and AI is accumulating.

The hard part will be adopting these technologies in such a way as to mitigate disruption and dislocation for citizens, and help them toward a new kind of working future.

* Kaushik Das is McKinsey & Company's Managing Partner for Southeast Asia and Diaan-Yi Lin is the Managing Partner for Singapore, where they are both based.

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