By Ehud Paz and Kelsa Trom
As artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies rapidly progress, there’s been intense, sometimes fearful, discussion around a simple, honest question: Will workers be replaced? In this three-part series, we will address the realities of automation from the perspective of an impacted worker, and shine a design lens on how we might shift the conversation to be more inclusive and productive. (And none of these articles were written by a robot, we promise.) Read the first article here.
If you read interviews with technology pundits or check the marketing for automation technologies, you are bound to come across something like this:
“Automate XYZ and help your best people focus on higher value work.”
“XYZ technology will free us up to do more interesting work.”
We call this the “boring jobs narrative.”
On the surface, suggesting technology as a cure for “boring, repetitive work” that frees people up to do “more interesting” or “higher value” work sounds great, and well-intentioned. After all, technologies have created significant advances and opportunities for new and interesting kinds of work throughout history. From a worker’s perspective, who would not want to move on to more interesting work? Where this narrative falls apart is when it collides with realities workers face when navigating the change brought on by automation.
As with any dialogue about the future, there are pessimists and optimists. This is less about whether automation will be good or bad for us in the long run, and more about how we have a realistic and productive conversation with people impacted by automation.
So, let’s examine the boring jobs narrative, starting first with the notion of “more interesting” work.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that workers are unenthused about work. Eighty five percent of workers are actively disengaged at work and a paltry one in four employees feel valued at work. However, the extent to which the type of work (the functions the person actually performs day to day) impacts someone’s satisfaction and engagement with a job can vary greatly from person to person. That sounds like an obvious statement, but let’s think about it for a moment. A person’s relationship to work is influenced by many factors: whether they feel recognized, their relationship with their colleagues and supervisors, their level of autonomy, their work/life balance, and their salary, to name a few. Many people do not go to work for the work itself — they go for the people. One survey found that 95% of job candidates place culture over salary. And for some, work is a means to an end and not their core source of fulfillment.
What may seem like redundant, boring, or, as some put it, “bullshit” work can be interesting to others.
Last year, as we spent some time speaking with workers who were adjusting to automation technologies. One person said:
“When I first worked at a large insurance company back in the day, we took the actual paper and deciphered what the information was from the claim and all the paperwork that was attached to it. We had to look at actual papers, and now you just pull up the info on the screen and it’s done automatically for you. [Automation] can take an interesting job and turn it into a real bore.”
Certain types of work can certainly feel repetitive and tedious to many of us. Other types of work can actually be dangerous for our safety and our long-term health — driving trucks, mining, and many types of maintenance jobs, for example. Yet, even in these cases, we have to understand the context of the worker. For some, the routine nature of certain types of work provides them a sense of stability — the workday is easier to predict, and success is easier to measure. For those who have spent a considerable part of their life doing a certain type of job, work can become a part of their identity and their connection to a community.
Losing a job to a machine — or worse, losing a profession to one — can feel unfair and crushing, even if you didn’t love your work. To tell people that they can move on to “more interesting” or “higher value” work can come off as tone-deaf and demeaning. We have already seen the backlash of large populations to retraining programs and messaging that can come off as paternalistic or even insulting. It also doesn’t take into account the difficulty of training and whether there are available and accessible job openings for that new type of work.
Many businesses who adopt automation technologies, while trying to improve quality, efficiency and service, are also explicitly trying to reduce labor costs. Training and finding new roles for employees impacted by new technologies does not always align with the budgets and capabilities of the organization. A study conducted by Accenture found that only three percent of business leaders say their organization plans to increase investment in training programs significantly in the next three years. When organizations do invest in training, effectively connecting people with the right skills and roles can be extraordinarily challenging.
When we visited the processing and administration teams of a large company as part of a design project, employees whose tasks were being automated were offered a choice of courses paid for by the company. For those that chose to participate in the program, they struggled to imagine how to apply the new skills they were learning. One person was learning Python, a programming language, through an online course. When asked how she might apply her new skills, she began thinking of ways to “code” many of the administrative tasks that the automation technologies being implemented were already replacing. Nobody was there to help connect the skills she was learning to new job possibilities. She was not sure what jobs to look for outside of her current company and whether those jobs existed in her town, and she couldn’t afford to relocate her family.
Some of the key challenges with training is not just the development of skills but the emotional and practical challenges of managing life around it: finding childcare, affording training or schooling, transportation, not to mention managing your current job. According to a study conducted by Pew, 57% of U.S. workers who needed training to advance in a job said that the inability to take time off from work influenced their ability to get training. Just under half (45%) said they could not afford to take classes.
On top of this, finding so-called “interesting” or “higher value” employment may be getting harder for some of the workforce. A report from the OECD found that the share of workers in middle-skill jobs fell from 49% in 1995 to under 40% in 2015. In the US, there are openings in stable, skilled positions in sectors like healthcare, management, computer and mathematics, business and financial operations, and architecture and engineering. However, most of these jobs are concentrated in nine states, and many people, especially those who have already lost jobs, might resist moving to another state for a job. Another factor is that advanced AI is catching up to more skilled workers. Recently at Amazon, decision makers in high-paying positions have been “repurposed” as their tasks have been taken over by automated platforms. There is growing evidence that larger companies — notably big technology companies — may be exacerbating this through their power and hiring habits, concentrating “rockstar” talent and opportunity in fewer epicenters.
While technological change creates opportunity, the access to opportunity can be uneven and the path toward it can be a bumpy one. To effectively frame change and have a meaningful dialogue with those impacted, we need to ditch the boring jobs narrative — at the very least as a way to start the dialogue. This does not mean neglecting reality, resisting innovation, or making false promises of returning to the past. It does mean framing change in a more human-centered way that takes into account the context of why people go to work: what work means to a worker, not what their work means to the change agent. Then and only then can we begin building a bridge from the challenge of change today to the promise of change tomorrow.
Ehud Paz (his friends call him “Eudi”) is a strategist at Fjord New York, focused on designing for the future of work and education. Kelsa Trom is a content designer with a background in learning and development and a passion for interdisciplinary growth. She is based in New York.
Illustration by Annie Lin, a visual designer at Fjord Austin.