Toll scans replace tollbooth operators, ATM and pay sharing apps replace bank tellers, drones replace pilots and delivery workers, and robots replace factory workers at manufacturing assembly plants. Labor unions decry the imminent threat to the global job market posed by automation, and some economists predict that 47% of American workers have jobs at high risk of likely automation in the next twenty years. The question then becomes who, what line of work, exactly faces risk of the inauspicious effects of automation, as the United States and other developed nations have previously overcome several waves of industrialization and advancement of technology before without devastating impact to human employment. McKinsey & Co., a private management consulting company, estimates that an “automation bomb” in the United States will cost manual laborers nearly $2 trillion in lost annual wages. Analysts predict that the next phase of automation will adversely affect both blue-collar, manual labor and white-collar, information and service workers relatively equally. Yet a contrasting perspective by some analysts suggests that automation may rather spur further job growth, in new and innovative fields.
No simple policy decision or law will eliminate or even curtail automation since automation is rooted in the theory of capitalism which maximizes profit through supply and demand. Employers seek more profit through increases in revenue and reducing expenses, including labor wages. McKinsey and Co. defines the ideal employee as one who is highly productive in his craft (thus eliminating the need for many, less productive workers) and requires less pay. As technology advances, the preference for business owners seems clear: use robot workers and produce a larger profit margin. Although capitalism was founded on the premise of improved social mobility for all individuals, it is paradoxical since automation likely widens wage gaps, as company executives grow wealthier from profit margins while middle class workers lose their jobs or experience reduced wages.
A common misconception of automation is that only blue-collar laborers will be affected. While blue-collar workers are similarly directly impacted by a loss of jobs due to automation, white-collar professionals also face competition from superior technology. One of the most promising technological developments of the 21st century is that of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence (AI) has essentially developed and granted cognitive capabilities to machines previously thought only able to perform repetitive and mundane tasks. Now, researchers have programmed “smart” machines and robots to work on complex legal tasks, investigate cases of fraudulence for insurance companies, and identify algorithmic business decisions by assessing the current market, among other high level tasks. Entry-level employees without sophisticated skills look small and meager in comparison to computers. As businesses seek a competitive edge over their rivals, artificial intelligence provides that sophistication.
However, automation cannot fully eliminate all jobs that exist in society and, in many cases, employees and job positions evolve and improve their skill sets to match forecasted changes in the labor market. As robots assume more menial and repetitive tasks in the manual labor market, a new line of workers will arise to supervise and tend to these machines. Much of the changes in the workplace due to automation, will revise job titles and expand the fields of engineering and technologies associated with the automation of manual labor activities. The brunt of the impact that automation brings to the job economy will come in the current generation of workers, as the shift from manual labor to technological tasks occurs. Unfortunately, economists predict that there will be significant layoffs, particularly in manual labor. There are limited opportunities for professionals working today to have the retraining needed to accommodate these colossal shifts in the operations of companies. But the next generation of workers is becoming well prepared for the ever growing field of technicians or engineers. From the STEAM education movement to the rise of computer science classes in primary schools, humans recognize the need to adapt to changing work demands of our time.
Automation has long been an increasingly dangerous threat in global society, affecting not just a single person or nation, but the job economy as we know it. Machines may hinder social mobility for members of all classes unless change occurs immediately and assurances are created to protect the jobs of workers from expanded automation, especially on foreign soil. Despite the possibility of new industries accompanying automation, the lives and financial well-being of the current generation are at risk.
“Automation and Anxiety,” 6/25/16, The Economist.
Ignatius, David. “The Brave New World of Robots and Lost Jobs,” 8/11/16, The Washington Post.