There was a time not so long ago when robots were dismissed as nothing more than a gimmick, the stuff of science fiction that had very few useful applications in the real world. However, robotic technology has advanced considerably in recent years, and this perception changed along with it, from indifference to concern to outright fear. And many people are becoming increasingly worried that they could lose their jobs to automation, but are those concerns justified? Are robots really going to take over our jobs? To answer that question, we need to look back.
What has history taught us?
The impact of robotic technology and automation on the job market has been a hotly contested topic for quite some time now, with some highly contrasting predictions on the opposite sides of the debate. While one side believes that automation will bring about massive unemployment, the other is convinced that it will actually create new jobs and bring economic prosperity. So, which side is right?
If we take a look back through history, we can see that we’ve already been in a similar situation multiple times before. Every time some new technology with the potential to disrupt the world appeared on the horizon, there were also those who opposed its adoption for fear of losing their livelihoods. Yet, their fears never actually materialised. Neither the invention of the automated knitting machine nor the introduction of the personal computer resulted in joblessness on a massive scale, as their most vocal opponents predicted. In fact, just the opposite happened, and both of these technologies ended up creating a wide variety of new jobs. True, some people did lose their jobs, but most of them were able to switch to new, better paid ones in time. There was a short transition period, but the labour market eventually adjusted to the new demands brought about by technological disruption. So, why should this fourth industrial revolution be any different?
The fourth industrial revolution
In the past, robotic technology was quite limited in what it could do, restricting its use mostly to simple, repetitive tasks in factories and warehouses. However, thanks to major advances in artificial intelligence technology in recent years, robots are becoming increasingly sophisticated and capable of performing even tasks that used to be reserved exclusively for humans. Machines are now replacing cashiers, truck drivers, package delivery workers, and customer service agents. There might come a day when robots will be able to do everything better than we can, but that day isn’t here yet.
Nevertheless, change is coming, and it’s going to be big. According to a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute, automation will force anywhere between 400 and 800 million people to look for a new job by 2030. Between 75 and 375 million of them will even have to switch occupational categories and learn new skills. However, not every segment of the global workforce will be equally affected. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that approximately 50 per cent of current work activities could theoretically be automated using existing technology. However, less than five per cent of occupations can be fully automated.
That means that a far more likely scenario is one in which robotic technology augments these activities, rather than taking them over completely. In essence, machines will handle the repetitive, dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks, leaving humans more time to focus on complex, value-added work. Physical activities in predictable environments, such as operating machinery or preparing fast food, as well as collecting and processing data are more at risk of automation. On the other hand, jobs that involve social interaction and managing people, such as teachers and doctors, or jobs in unpredictable environments, including gardeners and plumbers, are less susceptible to automation. New technology will certainly bring new jobs, but predicting just want kind of jobs they’ll be is a bit more difficult, since many of them don’t even exist yet. According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, around 33 per cent of new jobs created in the United States in the last 25 years didn’t exist before that period.
Managing the upcoming workforce transition
The most important thing will be to ensure that people who do lose their jobs to automation get the opportunity and the necessary education to acquire the skills they need for jobs created by the adoption of new technology. “Automation and globalisation will bring huge opportunities, but there is also a real risk that many people and places will lose out,” says Andrew Carter, the chief executive of the Centre for Cities, an independent, non-partisan think tank dedicated to improving the economy of UK cities. “We need to reform the education system to give young people the skills to thrive in the future, and we also need greater investment in lifelong learning to help adults adapt to the changing labour market.”
The global workforce is looking at another major transition, this time driven by robotic technology, but if history is any indication, there’s nothing to fear. Like many other times before, new technology will eliminate some jobs, but it will also create many new ones. Human labour will always be in demand, but its role might change. Governments will also need to do their part to ensure a smooth transition by providing training programs to enable people to acquire new skills that will be required in the future job market.