The Information Age: Why White-Collar Jobs Could Soon Become Extinct

by Lizzy Tan

It's the end of an era: The automation of white-collar jobs is here.

Think back to your 10th grade history class and recall the shift from small-scale cottage industries (think of a single craftsman shearing, knitting and sewing a fleece shirt) to mass-production using machines (now think of 100 identical shirts on an assembly line), known as the Industrial Revolution.

Goods became cheaper and more abundant, the middle class became wealthier and cities became urbanized.

More technological innovations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have continued this trend of mechanization, decreasing our demand for blue-collar workers, like construction workers, factory workers and other physical laborers.

These jobs still exist, yes, but there are fewer of them, and some of their nuances have changed. Construction workers now work alongside dump trucks and handcrafted goods, like a shearling shirt, are considered pricey novelties.

However, whether you like it or not, a 21st-century Industrial Revolution is imminent. And this time, skilled-professional, “white-collar” jobs are in danger.

The key players this time? Technology, cheaper foreign labor and the Internet.

We live in an age of rapidly improving technology. From nanobiotechnology to complex computer databases, computers have begun to take over the menial, algorithmic tasks of certain professions.

Secretaries no longer have to manually file documents and machines can take care of certain medical tasks.

Researchers have developed injectable cell carriers made of biodegradable polymers that are being used for knee repair, a process formerly exclusive to surgeons. This process is less invasive, safer and could be threatening to knee surgeons.

Outsourcing to foreign workers also affects white-collar jobs. For example, the average salary per month for an Indian engineer is about $1,000, while an American engineer has a salary of about $7,000 per month.

For simple, universal tasks, it's certainly more cost-effective to outsource, which is a trend that many companies are following and many young Americans are ignoring.

The third factor in this new era is the increased availability of information from the Internet.

Websites like LegalZoom, TurboTax and Esurance provide services comparable to those of traditional law firms, accountants and insurance agents — and at a cheaper rate.

The Internet also allows the masses to have access to information that no generation before has experienced.

I can look up how to self-treat a mild burn instead of going to a doctor and my dad researched how to write his own contracts instead of hiring a lawyer, just to name a few examples.

So, what does this mean for young people in America?

A secondary or tertiary degree no longer guarantees the job security it once did. College graduates are finding it harder to secure work after graduation than ever before, and for good reason. The Internet's resources, cheap foreign labor and computers make formidable opponents.

Like blue-collar jobs, white-collar roles may decrease in demand and/or change. A few months ago, I was able to speak to Mark Harris, founder of Axiom Law, speak about his company's conception.

Harris, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, founded Axiom Law to “strip away the unnecessary work that does not need to be done by law firms,” which include what he called the “Big Law Firm Experience”:  beautiful, expensive office spaces, pricey meals out and the like.

Axiom Law connects clients to attorneys in a revolutionary way that does not reflect the old order, cuts costs and is competitive to traditional options.

Other white-collar professions may follow a similar route of being revolutionized, but not eradicated.

Interdisciplinary work is also on the horizon. The researchers in knee repair nanotechnology are doing just that; rather than battling technology, these 21st-century innovators are embracing the menial work computers can take over and combining fields like biology, programming and medicine.

We can expect new professions to arise that combine several different areas of knowledge.

And let's, not overlook that though “simple, universal work” can be outsourced to developing countries or shuttled off to computers, high-tier, innovative workers cannot be replaced.

Using the engineering example from above, while calculating building specifications can be outsourced, cheap labor or computers cannot replace what is required to invent new structures. In this sense, the “cream of the crop” will not be affected.

This could imply higher job security in the United States for those who are highly skilled, creative and irreplaceable (certain surgeons, innovative lawyers, great speakers and the like).

It could also mean that bottom-tier workers (the engineers who foreign workers could replace) might be kicked out of the hierarchy.

While this might be the end of the “white-collar professions era” as we know it, it's also the start of a new one: a highly technological, innovative and interdisciplinary age.