Then They Came for the Lawyers,

Strange though it may sound, there was a time when manufacturing work resembled professional work today. In the 18th century, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, life wasn’t bad for skilled tradespeople, who enjoyed a remarkable level of freedom and flexibility in performing their work. They represented a relatively well-off, aspirational class.

Then came the machines. The mechanization of manufacturing transformed industrial work. Because the new machines cost lots of money, bosses kept a close eye on workers to make sure they were doing their jobs and taking good care of the equipment. Over time, this monitoring allowed industrialists to rejigger production in efficiency-enhancing ways. Where manufacturing work was once something of an art that relied on knowledge built up through apprenticeship and experience, it became a highly scripted slog, broken down into repetitive tasks. Anyone could do it, and so the special status and relatively high wages once enjoyed by manufacturing workers disappeared. Laborers became mere extensions of the machines, handling tasks the machines could not — until, eventually, they could.

Across advanced economies, the professional class — white-collar workers in business management, technology, law, finance, and medicine — has largely escaped the ill effects of the recent changes, including rapid globalization and automation. Those changes have disproportionately hurt workers engaged in routine sorts of tasks — running machines on factory floors or carrying out back-office jobs — and those without a college (or especially a graduate) degree. Conventional wisdom long held that this immunity was likely to continue. A paper published by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne in 2013, which famously estimated that 47 percent of job categories would be vulnerable to automation in coming decades, ranked positions such as manager, engineer, and lawyer among those at lowest risk of displacement.

But the forecast for highly skilled workers is starting to look less sunny. The professional world is about to be transformed by artificial intelligence. As that process unfolds, it could reshape white-collar work much as industrialization transformed manufacturing.

The professional world is about to be transformed by artificial intelligence. As that process unfolds, it could reshape white-collar work much as industrialization transformed manufacturing.

READ MORE ON(Then They Came for the Lawyers): foreign policy