The news about job security has never been good for my generation. We had one headmaster who thundered ‘many of you will end up on the dole!’ He was warming up to a second career as a motivational speaker. Younger generations are now hearing that robots are after their opportunities.
This week I read You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot – And Sooner Than You Think on the Mother Jones website, written by Kevin Drum. Sometime in the next 40 years, writes Drum, robots are going to take your job. The advances to focus on aren’t those in robotic engineering – though they are happening too – but the way we’re hurtling toward artificial intelligence, or AI. According to this piece, robots can now play Jeopardy better than the best humans. Welsh police recently made the first ever arrest in the UK using facial recognition software and an Uber truck delivered 200 cases of Budweiser 120 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs – without a driver at the wheel. How very human and reassuring to read that these early applications involve the delivery of beer.
Drum’s article is interesting, but it is not quite as alarming, or promising, as I had hoped. He predicts that by 2022, robots will be expert at folding laundry. Can’t they hurry up with that device? I watched Lost in Space religiously and I would swear Maureen Robinson extracted folded and wrapped laundry from a machine resembling a desk printer. Was I naïve to hope someone was working on this machine in the background?
Robots will, we are told, have the positive capacity to free human beings from drudgery. Would they kindly attend some meetings on my behalf? Better still, could a bunch of robots just hold the meetings and report back? I have sat next to people in my working life that could easily be replaced by any seat warming device. Their contributions, if they made any at all, were often paraphrased from the last person who spoke.
And so I am not as worried about this as I possibly should be. I am a rational optimist at heart. Human beings are resilient and change is never quite as radical as we fear.
John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay in 1930 titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren and predicted that the working future was a 15 hour week. When studying Labour Economics in the 1980s, I was assured that technologies such as the personal computer, email, word processor and mobile phone, were going to reduce our working week by so many hours, that we would be challenged to fill the leisure time. I am currently challenged to find the time to scratch myself.
And sometimes there is a pendulum swing back the other way. In the Shake Shack fast food outlet in New York, orders are handled by a Chat Box and payments are cashless. Fast food has tried to eliminate human decision making in its processes for a long time. The flavour, and dare I say, joy, in a burger has often reflected the overall strategy, which could explain why gourmet burger joints are now thriving.
My generation, like every other generation since the Industrial Revolution, has seen jobs disappear gradually in our lifetime. We have also seen jobs created. How many bank tellers were made redundant by ATMS? How many supermarket checkout people lost their rosters due to self-serve islands? How many check-in staff and baggage people at airports have been out of work now that we perform a lot of these tasks ourselves? And yet banking, retail and airlines are still very large employers. Sometimes the jobs replaced were pretty boring. Did anyone really enjoy working in a toll booth before e-tags came along?
Drum’s predictions are all fine and dandy for me, since I won’t be at work in 40 years-time, but what should we tell our children? Bernard Salt writes in his regular column in The Australian, that low skilled, let alone unskilled, work is being outsourced to developing economies. Work is dividing into a world of technocrats and a world of knowledge workers; people who have technical proficiency and people who design, manage and implement.
The best way to future proof the demand for your work is to ensure you have the right technical skills. They will require study and training and the understanding that retraining could be a life-long concern. The most vulnerable workers in the future, and today, are the unskilled and the inflexible. Our children and their children will need to continuously learn and adapt. They will need soft skills such as resilience and grace under pressure, good manners, diligence and the ability to work hard and smart.
So there is nothing very new under the sun after all.