Do Androids Dream Of Stealing My Job?September 02, 2016
You have self-checkouts at the supermarket and self check-ins at the airport, both reducing the need for human attendants. This was radical not that long ago, now these are common technologies.
Meanwhile, the rise of the (sewing) machines is gaining ground, with robots tackling one of the few non-automated slices of the manufacturing world – sewing is now being automated. I thought surely robots already made clothes, but apparently, “The challenge with clothing is that it moves. It flexes, it stretches, it’s hard to rigidize.” Yet the bots caught on eventually.
Now, Uber is launching driverless cars in collaboration with Volvo. All of this has renewed interest in the question: Is technology coming for my job?
The answer is, yes.
As the speed of innovation continues to increase, it feels more and more like machines are a threat to human labor. This is a valid concern. The changing nature of work will continue to modify the fabric of our culture and society.
Here’s what the numbers say:
- A 2013 Oxford University study predicts that future technology will displace nearly half of American jobs.
- The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers’ 2016 report to the president estimated that 83 percent of jobs paying less than $20 per hour could be automated.
The Good News About Automation
The answer is also, no. When machines start doing the jobs of humans, our tendency is to go into panic mode. We see technology not as the harbinger of industrial progress, but as evil robots killing jobs with zeros and ones. In reality, automation often stimulates – rather than destroys – employment.
Economist James Bessen reminds us that the introduction of electronic file sorting technology in the legal field didn’t reduce the number of paralegals and lawyers. Instead, the number of people in these professions actually increased. Electronic file sorting reduced the amount of time people had to sort through files, but the efficiency and cost reductions helped the industry grow and thus demand for paralegals and lawyers increased (they just didn’t spend so much time searching for files).
This doesn’t mean that, as an employee, you don’t have to adjust and enhance your skills over time. You do. The paralegal who kicks ass at file sorting, but not much else, certainly has a problem on his hands. And it’s bigger than robots.
“The main effect of automation for the time being will not be to eliminate jobs, but to redefine them—changing the tasks and the skills needed to perform them,” explains Bessen.
“It turns out that workers will have greater employment opportunities if their occupation undergoes some degree of computer automation. As long as they can learn to use the new tools, automation will be their friend.”
Take Charge Of Your Learning
As technology changes work, it also flows down to change traditional education as well.
Jeff Selingo of The Washington Post explains that, “Previous changes in the nature of work all required massive policy shifts in education. Universal high school started at the beginning of the 19th Century in the move from the farm to the factory. The move from the factory to the office in the 1960s and 1970s required education after high school and began the universal college movement.”
But don’t wait for governments or schools to react to technological change. Success means taking the initiative. There are a lot of alternative methods for learning today and both individuals and organizations have a responsibility to plan for the changing nature of work.
Companies need to offer robust professional development programs that help their best and brightest people evolve their skills. MIT researchers say that more flexibility and experimentation can help organizations determine how to plan for the future, but that policies have to be in place to empower it.
Likewise, people can’t be complacent and assume that because a skill was valued in the past, that it will or should be valued in the future. As if our existing skill set equals a right to employment. This is the real heart of our fears. We think because we took the time to acquire a skill, it demands to be valued. But life doesn’t work that way. We mostly know not to spend time perfecting our 3-point shot, if football is the dominant sport. But you can also skip learning to throw a spiral – no matter how much you want to – if someone’s teaching a robot to do it.
Skills and specialized expertise will continue to change in value. Technology is going to kill this job, change that one, and then create five more. Don’t look backwards. Accept the process, allow yourself to learn constantly and you’ll stay ahead of the robot overlords.