“The robots” are definitely coming for some of today’s jobs. But, could they ultimately create more jobs than they destroy?
There is a lot of fear these days that new technologies will lead to more automation and fewer jobs for humans. And, there is good reason to expect a shift. Recent and future innovations will certainly change the way we live and work in the years to come, just as they have in past decades. And, robots will almost certainly be taking over some jobs. But, might there be another effect, too? Could technological innovations actually create more jobs than they destroy? How will this impact workers and the economy? The matter is a topic of some debate.
Let’s look at the facts.
Robots will definitely take over some jobs
There’s no use sugarcoating it: some people are definitely going to lose their jobs because of automation in the years ahead.
According to The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs Report, a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” will change the way many industries function. Some jobs will be lost while new ones will be created. And, many of the jobs that aren’t lost will change. Innovation will affect how employees do their work.
How will robots affect the future job market? Predictions vary widely — but some are especially alarming. A McKinsey & Company report from November 2017 predicted that automation could cost 400 to 800 million jobs globally by 2030.
Experts tend to agree that automation is going to bring big changes to the job market in the years ahead.
“We’re starting to see robots and automated systems penetrate every sector of the economy,” Jeremie Capron, director of research at Robo Global, told The New York Times. “The pace of change is really accelerating, so, yes, it’s a revolution.”
Companies want to work with robots
Here’s the thing about automation, from an employer’s perspective: robots aren’t just more cost-effective than human labor — although that’s certainly a factor — they’re also just better at performing certain kinds of tasks. Machines outperform people when it comes to precision, endurance and manual dexterity. As a result, employers are likely to favor them for certain tasks above humans.
This puts some jobs at risk.
But, all isn’t lost. The good news is that the economy and the job market have adjusted to changes like this before. And, there’s every reason to believe the same thing will happen again.
Automation has been influencing the job market for generations
It’s important to keep some perspective when talking about how automation influences the job market. If you focus only on the fact that robots are poised to replace some workers, the future can start to look pretty daunting. But, that’s not the whole picture. Not by a long shot.
You see, “robots” have been replacing workers for centuries. For example, in the 19th century many cities employed folks to work as what they called lamplighters. Before electricity, these essential workers made their way up and down city streets lighting each street lamp by hand. (They also had to extinguish them in the morning.) People considered the job to be a fairly respectable one at the time mainly because of its relative safely and good pay in comparison to other jobs. Of course, when electricity came around, lamplighters lost their jobs.
But, in the end, the same technological booms that cost workers their jobs also create new ones. Electricity, for example, might have cost lamplighters their coveted positions, but it created a ton of jobs, too.
In 1820, just two centuries ago, 72 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in “farm occupations.” But, less than 2 percent are farmers today. This is just another example of how the economy, and the workforce, adjusts to meet the changes that technology brings.
Automation might help shift some trends in the right direction
In other good news, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that automation often results in higher compensation for workers, along with other benefits like safer working conditions and greater productivity.
Automation could also help to improve workforce diversity. Often, work that is reorganized by the influence of automation becomes desirable to a larger segment of the population. The job becomes safer, for example. Or maybe it can be done remotely when it used to require workers at a specific location.
Advancements in automation could help to improve the gender pay gap over time. This is mainly because men are more likely to have routine jobs than women are. So, their jobs are arguably more vulnerable to threats from automation.
Furthermore, there are many tasks that it’s best for humans to handle. Work isn’t easily duplicated by machines when it require things like emotional intelligence, creativity or strong interpersonal communication. Jobs that require these traits aren’t going anywhere any time soon. They might even expand in the years to come. All of this could help to bridge the persistent gender pay gap.
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Here’s how to prepare for the robot incursion:
So, yes, the robots are coming for our jobs. But, they’ll also open up new opportunities. The economy and the job market will adjust. And, in the end, workers may end up safer and better paid as a result of the changes.
However, despite the comforting big picture, the current reality can still feel pretty scary on an individual level. If you’re worried about losing your job to automation, consider the following approaches:
- Train in uniquely human skills. If you really want to arm yourself for the job market of the future, focus on developing skills that are uniquely human. Robots can’t best us when it comes to things like creativity, analytical thinking, communication, interpersonal relationships and originality. (At least, not yet.) There are still some things that require a human touch. So, work on developing and strengthening those kinds of skills.
- Do your homework. In the years ahead, some occupations are expected to decline (telemarketers and watch repairers, for example.) But other jobs are faster growing (such as nurse practitioners and wind turbine service technicians.) Before making any bold moves, like going back to school or training for a new skill, do your homework to be sure your move is advantageous.
- Don’t be afraid. There’s no sense in being fearful about how future technologies will change your life or your job. Remind yourself of all of the wonderful benefits these advances have brought you and your family. Look forward to the future — don’t cower from it. In this way, you’ll rise to meet new challenges with excitement and enthusiasm rather than resentment and fear. And that, in and of itself, could make a world of difference.
- Learn how to learn. Even if you do learn an entirely new skillset, that might not be enough to keep your job safe. Keep in mind that changes will continue to come over the course of your career. For this reason, students (of any age) ought to focus on learning how to learn. In this way, they’ll be able to continue to adapt to shifts as a result of automation for years and decades to come.
- Consider supporting universal basic income. We’re not there quite yet, but that hasn’t stopped folks from talking about the possibility of universal basic income for decades. It’s a controversial topic, but it’s worth talking about in an age where automation is bringing big changes to the nature of work. The idea is that all citizens get a fixed amount of income regardless of other income or work status. The government would pay for this through a variety of sources including income taxes and decreases in other spending. Some worry that such a program would function as a disincentive to workers. But, others say that is would help eliminate poverty and lead to a creativity, entrepreneurship and research boom.
- Be flexible. One thing we know for sure about the future is that it’s going to be different than today. Therefore, it will pay to be flexible in the years ahead. This is true no matter what industry you work in or what occupation you hold. It might help to keep in mind that adaptability is a uniquely human skill, too. It’s what has helped us to survive the countless other changes we’ve faced as a species. Remember, it’s not the strongest that survive, it’s the most adaptable.
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