Careers in the Future of Complacency

Credit: Aleutie

Automation in the workplace — and the millions who will be without jobs as a result — is no laughing matter. So, why is it still being treated as such?

We all think tech revolutions are far-removed from our own workplace bubble. Then it beeps and tells us to get out of the way while we’re left standing with our bollocks and job security barely intact. At least, that’s what happened to me one Tuesday morning when I arrived at work to find a ‘TUG’ robot doing my job.

In terms of technological zest, TUG robots aren’t much more than slow, trolley-pushing buggies. But the fact my employers were willing to shell out for a stupidly expensive robot was just a sign of things to come. And who can blame them? They’ve just invested in a worker who’ll never call in sick, show up late, get distracted or slack-off on the job. And what’s most rewarding is they’ll never have to pay this thing. Ever. It’s a no-brainer for the resourceful upper-management. But it’s a ticking clock for us shitkickers.

In 2013, an Oxford research team led by Carl Benedict Frey and Michael Osborne published a sobering report on the growing rate of automation in the workplace. The team found that 35 percent of British jobs and 47 percent of American jobs were at risk of becoming automated. The figures for Australia aren’t much cheerier. According to the Committee of Economic Development of Australia [CEDA] 40 percent of Australian jobs won’t exist by 2030. This equates to roughly five million jobs lost to automation. Figures also suggest six out of ten jobs in rural Australia will be automated in the same time span. Production and technology are already centralised to urban areas. The advent of automation alone could be disastrous for rural communities.

Hospital TUG, image via Springwise

This isn’t an excuse to flip the table and start heading for hills. Rather, it’s an incentive for everyone to accept and prepare for the inevitable. Unfortunately, this subject is still treated with scrutiny and scepticism.

A recent study by economists from Deloitte found that technology had been a “job-creating machine” over the last 140 years. Their findings show technology had replaced human workers in more dangerous occupations such as mining and agriculture, thus allowing labour to shift its role as an industrial powerhouse to the care, education and business-oriented models of today.

Similar studies go so far as to dispute the original findings of Frey and Osborne. According to data collected by the Centre for European Economic Research [ZEW], automation will not replace entire occupations but specific tasks. The study also suggests the steep unemployment figures suggested by Frey and Osborne are actually much smaller, with nine percent unemployment predicted in the US and ten percent in the UK.

These figures seem small but ten percent unemployment in the UK still counts for roughly 3.2 million jobs lost to automation. As for the US, just nine percent of jobs lost to automation equals more than 13 million unemployed citizens.

We’re all guilty of turning a blind eye to problems on our doorstep. I was blind, deaf and dumb to all of this until TUG showed up. But to take these issues for granted is an undeniable show of complacency. Nine percent doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s equivalent to the entire population of Belgium without an income. Though some people seem to care less.

One night, after hours of arguing with my friend over the coming automated shitstorm, I decided to consult a third party. This third party happened to be writer and devoted unionist, Van Badham. There’s no doubt I did this on a trivial impulse. But I figured if anyone had an idea on how to deal with rampant automation then it would be Ms Badham.

At first, I couldn’t fault her response. The cotton gin and mechanised manufacturing certainly hadn’t rid humanity of industry. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I’m sure Ms Badham had a million better things to do than back-and-forth with some half-arsed blogger. But her flippant response smacked of someone who’ll never feel the sting of seeing a cold, lifeless — but no less efficient — machine doing her job. The same goes for the research team at ZEW.

There’s no TUG built to study European economics, nor is The Guardian shelling out for a shiny, new four-wheeled columnist. No matter how much the figures are fizzled down and new — yet still undiscovered — jobs are celebrated, tens of millions will lose their jobs. And most workers aren’t even aware.

Research conducted by recruitment agency, Randstad revealed that 84 percent of Australians did not believe automation would affect their job in the next ten years. According to Professor Walsh of the CSIRO, jobs across the spectrum — from taxi drivers and legal interns to radiographers — are at significant risk. He also urged the public to start acknowledging the reality of automated workplaces.

“Society is going to need to start waking up to the consequences, because we are going to have to change our educational systems, our economic system, and our idea of work to adjust to the arrival of a lot of automation.”

There seems to be no silver lining in this mess. However, solutions have been put forward by significant figures and organisations alike. These include living wages and human quotas, the latter as proposed by the International Bar Association to quell the threat of widespread job cuts in developing nations. Others such as Nobel-prize winning economist, Robert Schiller and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates have urged the implementation of a “robot tax” to curb the rate of automation. Others are less-convinced.

Kiva automated systems are employed by in warehouses, via Lake Nona Social

According to futurist Sharna Evans re-skilling and embracing change are the only viable options for workers most at risk. “For somebody that has their head in the sand and they find their job has been replaced by automation, and they haven’t bothered to look at what else they’re good at reskilling, those changes would be pretty devastating,” she said.

While it looks like the best of us have little choice but to embrace the security of jobs in education, health and social work, it’s a sad reminder of contemporary society, in that occupations are chosen out of necessity and not out of desire.

Some say automation will destroy menial jobs and thus encourage workers to consider more rewarding career choices. However, this only seems feasible for middle and upper-class westerners with the channels to re-skill. To be clear, I’m not trying to push my own employment situation as a woe-is-me sob story. It’s the factory workers, miners, clerks, cargo agents, analysts, drivers, salespeople, machine operators, inspectors, brokers, cashiers, labour contractors, technicians, underwriters and tellers — particularly in developing nations — who’ve pulled the short-straw.

This mess smacks of baby-boomers who continuously deny climate change. Just because your careers and your occupation aren’t on the cutting room floor doesn’t give you license to dismiss it as a passing matter. 10 percent is still 10 percent. 45 percent is still 45 percent. Five million unemployed Australians is still millions of Australian families without an income. This is not good enough.

Perhaps universal income, robot taxes and human quotas are nothing but pipe dreams. And perhaps we should take this tech revolution on the chin and re-skill. But we should never be complacent about the possibility of millions without jobs. We are not lifeless robots.

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