The Impact of Generative AI on White Collar Jobs

Nov 7, 2023 4:49:52 PM

For as long as the concept of artificial intelligence has been in the public consciousness—first in science fiction, then in the real world—it has been accompanied with warnings of what could happen to the people it was made to serve.

In books and movies, that usually means robots and humans pitted against each other in a life-or-death struggle. In the real world, AI is considered more of a threat to how people make a living rather than to their actual lives.

AI white collar jobs have become the main topic in the ongoing saga of automation and its effect on the workforce. With the advent of large language models (LLMs) for generative AI programs and applications such as OpenAI’s famous ChatGPT, jobs that were previously seen as safe from automation are now seemingly in the crosshairs for elimination.

But before we sound alarms about a bloodbath for white collar workers, we need to take stock of what AI can actually do and ask ourselves, “is AI destroying jobs”? That question is not as easy to answer as one may think. So let’s dig deeper into how AI will affect jobs.

What Jobs Are at Risk?

So is AI taking jobs? The short answer is not yet. The long answer is more complicated. This is because the types of jobs that AI may be taking now are not the typical jobs a person might normally associate with job-loss from advancing technologies.

In the past, automating blue collar jobs was the primary focus for worries about human replacement. It wasn’t so long ago that free-roaming package retrieval robots in warehouses and automated machines that were connected through the Internet of Things were a big topic in logistics and manufacturing circles.

However, the large-scale replacement of human workers to intelligent machines never quite materialized—or at least, it hasn’t yet. For the most part, those machines have been used to augment the work of humans in their industries. 

With some retraining and upskilling, those blue collar workers were able to use these machines as tools to make their jobs more efficient and with higher end-product quality. Whether or not that will be true for AI white collar jobs remains to be seen, though.

Jobs that AI will replace are as wide-ranging as accounting, paralegals, copywriters, reporters, analysts, coders, and more. These are occupations that typically require a college degree and are found in the back office, not on the factory floor.

There was a time when these jobs were considered untouchable by automation, but that was before generative AI became so easily available. But it isn’t quite time to panic about AI killing jobs just yet.

The Limits of Artificial Intelligence

AI white collar jobs are not likely to replace white collar workers any time soon because, while something like ChatGPT can process a great deal of content to create a few paragraphs, it is limited to the content that it has access to.

Put another way, artificial intelligence can only process and repackage information—it cannot create something entirely new. This means that relying on AI for advertising copy or reporting or graphic design can run you a risk of unintentionally plagiarizing someone else.

That pitfall can be avoided if the AI is only fed content that is owned by the company for which it is working. In that case, it is very important to have someone go through it to make sure that the article is not full of one particular writer’s bad habits and frequent segue phrases.

Another reason not to fear how ChatGPT will destabilize white collar work is that AI cannot, on its own, tell what information is true and what is false. AI has often been likened to a hyper-competent child. It can do amazing things, but it will believe anything you tell it.

AI aggregating and repackaging content runs the risk of propagating disinformation if the sources that fuel it do not have accurate information. And while a human with training can recognize an incorrect value in a data set before entering it for analysis, AI will simply run the analysis with whatever data it is presented. It is not sentient. It cannot tell the difference.

Essentially, this means that AI white collar jobs are limited to completing certain data and language driven tasks. But AI can’t think critically. It can’t “think outside the box” as it were because it is designed to only think within the box that has been created for it.

But this is where we can stop worrying about AI destroying jobs, and focus on how it is actually most likely to be used.

Joint Human and AI White Collar Jobs

The truth of the matter is that generative artificial intelligence is a tool that can be used by skilled workers. In the same way that intelligent machines did not cause a massive bloodbath of blue collar jobs, there is not likely to be a huge negative impact of artificial intelligence on employment.

Instead, what is most likely is that white collar workers will endure some growing pains with retraining and upskilling so that they can get the most out of their generative AI. They can let the AI handle the menial tasks while the humans focus on bigger picture ideas—the kind that a machine simply is not capable of generating.

Many data-driven workflows and processes have a logical process from start to finish that artificial intelligence can breeze through in a fraction of the time it would take a human. So let that human take the time that would have been spent on that task to help their organization in other ways.

In a way, human workers become supervisors for their AI white collar jobs. They make sure that the information the AI is fed is accurate, they edit and tweak the language in reports and written copy to reflect human language usage, and they monitor for technical difficulties that may pop up from time to time.

At this point, with the current capabilities of generative AI, it is unlikely that a massive reduction in white collar workers sweeps through the offices of industries worldwide. What is more likely is that AI will be a tool that allows white collar workers to do their jobs faster, more efficiently, and with a greater focus on high level tasks.

The Future is Coming

The fact of the matter is that AI is not going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean that there will be a battle between humans and machines like in the movies. Some people may lose their jobs as a result of the efficiencies brought about by AI, but there is unlikely to be a massive uptick in white collar unemployment.

Of course, we don’t actually know everything that AI will be capable of accomplishing in five years or ten years. And some companies will decide to be early adopters of a heavy reliance on AI. Those companies will eliminate jobs. It will be painful for people. But if AI can’t actually do everything they think it can yet, those jobs will need to return.

Additionally, if AI drives growth, more people will be needed to handle the increased business. This would mean a brief dip in employment in favor of AI white collar jobs followed by a recovery of those jobs.

In the end, white collar jobs across the board require some degree of critical thought or creativity that AI just can’t match. And because humans are required to create, AI will always be a tool to augment human work, not wholly replace it.

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