February 27, 2017
Why Automation Will Create, Not Destroy, Jobs
If you have been watching political tectonics on both sides of the Atlantic, you may have noticed that analysts are increasingly getting it wrong: "it" being economics, politics, and social trends. The all of it, wrong. Why is this?
We are now deep into a digital transformation, and a new way of thinking and working and living. The business models of our past are faltering. Legacy thinking is virtually unfit for this digital age. The reality is that the conditions within which humanity operates are not what they used to be. Yet, thousands of self-proclaimed experts continue their important work with obsolete methods and mindsets, outdated hardware and software.
A prime example of this is the hysteria that surrounds automation and artificial intelligence. Almost every newspaper and media outlet warns of an apocalyptic future when technology will fracture the employment landscape. As a result, many fear that technology is creating job-stealing robots.
On that score, there are many lessons to be learned from our past.
For example, the industrial revolution taught us that as traditional jobs disappear, we need to ensure that people of all ages are sufficiently educated to prepare and take advantage of the new emerging roles in our immediate future.
Burying our heads in the sand and arming our children with skills for roles that will no longer exist is certainly not the answer. Neither is clinging to business models of the past or recreating the good-old days. The times demand new skills, new mindsets, new competencies, and new institutions.
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Stuck in the Past
This backward glance is one of the problems that I encountered with President Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again." This is not a post against our President, I respect him and respect our presidency. This is not about politics. It's about vision. It is impossible to go back in time or to recreate the past. Building a better and brighter future is the only way forward.
If we compare the jobs of one hundred years ago to the jobs of the present, we would be stunned by the standard of living and the thankless work. Creative directors, content strategists, app developers and social media managers are a product of our times. The mentality of doing what you love is also a product of the epoch.
Indeed, hundreds of traditional roles have disappeared over the years, but they have been replaced with new job titles for our digital age.
The Labor Force of Today
The Obama administration had published a report to Congress in February 2016 (link here) that was subsequently removed - I cannot seem to find the PDF anywhere on the web anymore. The HuffPost had also discussed the contents of this report when it was published. I quote from that report:
“There is an 83% chance that workers who earn $20 an hour or less could have their jobs replaced by robots in the next five years. Those in the $40 an hour pay range face a 31% chance of having their jobs taken over by the machines.” — Report from President Obama's Whitehouse to Congress
Despite the big scary headlines, we are not running out of work. The challenge that faces society and government is that many people see the available jobs as, on the one hand, unworthy of them. On the other, they see themselves as lacking the skills to qualify.
It is true that the growing demise of middle-skill jobs could cause employment polarization where lower paid workers serve the more affluent without upward mobility. This dynamic would undoubtedly be a step backward. However—once again—the lessons learned from past economic transformations suggest it does not have to be this way.
For example, today it is difficult to imagine that people once blamed the tractor for killing agricultural jobs. In fact, this new machine left an entire generation without work on farms. It also led to the inception of the high school movement, which then led to greater investment in education and ultimately created tremendous prosperity.
Although we often congratulate ourselves for just how far we have come as a society, the truth is that we have the same problems today as we did 200 years ago.
Whether they be the Luddites of the early 1800s or the analysts and journalists of 2017, the issues are essentially the same. The fear of machines, robots, and technology rendering humans obsolete and taking away our jobs.
Make no mistake that many traditional roles we hold dear will slowly disappear. The transition from an analog to a digital world will not be easy. To thrive, we will need to invest in ourselves rather than in things. We will need to secure for ourselves the relevant skills to succeed.
This transition is as it should be for the same reason that we probably don’t want to carry on the work of our grandparents. Not to say preserving a legacy is entirely unwanted, but it is not a sustainable policy for an entire society—especially one in flux like ours.
As technology continues to pervade every aspect of human life, change—within us and around us—will remain the only constant. Sure, there are challenges and difficult decisions ahead of us. Take heart. Our destiny is in our hands, not in the hands of the machines we create. Don’t let any publication tell you otherwise.
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