I work in administration at a big legal firm in the city. Every day I’m hearing more chatter about the rise of automation in our workplace. Technology has already taken over many mundane tasks, but I’m starting to get a bit worried. Will a robot take my job? How do I outsmart artificial intelligence?
Nervous and Obsolete?
Dear Nervous and Obsolete?,
There’s no gentle way to say this. Is your job in peril? Quite possibly. But brace yourself – that may be the least of your problems.
It’s important to remember that when we’re talking about robots taking our jobs, we’re not talking about actual androids sitting at computers or teaching our kids or serving us drinks. We’re talking about companies deciding to use algorithms to do the work that human beings were once employed to do.
It’s a process that’s already been going on for a long time. Where once personal assistants were employed to manage the diaries of the busy senior ranks, or administrative officers provided similar support across departments, now bosses and workers alike are expected to schedule their own working lives, and everybody else’s, via Outlook’s calendar feature.
It’s one small, seemingly insignificant example. But multiply it by the thousands of housekeeping processes at thousands of organisations, tasks once performed by humans now automated, and you begin to sense the accumulating scale of the change.
“Historically, there has been a net positive gain in jobs. Now the worry, which I think is well-founded, is that automation will create a net negative sum of jobs.”
– Anthony D’Costa
So, what jobs and skills will give you the edge and keep you employed as the AI hordes come over the hill?
The general, blindingly obvious rule that gets bandied about is: the harder your job is to automate, the longer it will exist.
Does your job involve data entry? An algorithm could easily do that. Does your job involve talking with human beings, or solving complex problems? That’s less easy to automate.
According to the Foundation for Young Australians, a youth-focused think tank which has published a series of reports on the future of work, “young people can’t rely on (STEM) skills alone to thrive in the future of work”. Your ability to survive in the professional workplace is not just a matter of learning how to code. Rather, the foundation urges workers to focus on “enterprise skills including problem solving, critical thinking and communication (that) are of prime importance”.
Management giant KPMG has said that the in-demand skills for the 21st century include collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, empathy, entrepreneurship, relationship-building and problem-solving – all the hallmarks of the oft-maligned arts degree, and all fairly difficult to automate.
So what sorts of jobs make use of these skills? Research out of the University of Oxford earlier this year listed a bunch of jobs from least to most likely to be automated. Jobs judged least likely to be automated include teachers, psychologists, dentists and HR managers. Those judged most likely to be automated include legal secretaries,telemarketers, library technicians and movie projectionists.
So that’s one way to approach your question: I could tell you to go re-train in an automation-proof career. The problem with this advice though is that we can’t all be HR managers or dentists. And it frames the problem as one of individual responsibility: if only you’d re-trained as a healthcare professional, you’d still be in work!
So the second way of approaching your question is to ask a broader question: namely, where is this all going? Is a world where companies increase their profits by putting more people out of work a sustainable one?
“New technologies have traditionally created all kinds of opportunities,” notes academic Anthony D’Costa. “Economists have found that generally, and historically, there has been a net positive gain in jobs.” The invention of the engine put horse and buggy riders out of work, for example, but it created many more jobs in everything from Ford factories to petrol stations.
“Now, though, the worry, which I think is well-founded, is that automation will create a net negative sum of jobs.”
To illustrate how technological change can transform all sorts of things, D’Costa cites the example of electric cars.
“Many cars are more computer than mechanical these days,” he notes. “When they all become electric, what happens to mechanics? What happens to the geopolitics of oil? And when more cars become driverless, what happens to truck drivers? What happens to petrol stations? How will our streetscapes transform?”
The flow-on effects from all of these changes are mind-boggling.
So, back to you, Nervous & Obsolete? Let’s say you do re-train and manage to find yourself working in a field that will always be in demand. How will you feel about paying taxes when the robots doing other jobs aren’t? Will governments have enough tax revenue coming in to invest in maintaining and growing public infrastructure and social support systems if the total wages bill stagnates or decreases? And how do we maintain a civil, functional, cohesive society if a large and increasing proportion of households don’t have an income – the conversation about whether we should or could provide a Universal Basic Income is just beginning, but that’s a topic for another week.
Automation challenges every conceivable orthodoxy we have about work, from the relationship between labour and taxes to the notion that working is fundamental to our sense of self.
Some people are thinking through the idea of a society where, thanks to automation, more and more people are permanently unemployed or underemployed. This is where the idea of a Universal Basic Income comes in, but that’s a topic for another week.
For D’Costa, a broader public debate on automation can’t come soon enough.
“We need to ask … is this the society we want for ourselves?”
Do you have a question about the future workplace? A concern about the jobs, opportunities, challenges, skills and cultures shaping up in the rapidly changing labour force? Write to Anders, and he will take your question to the experts: firstname.lastname@example.org