The Future of Work: our love-hate relationship with technology

The robots are coming to take our jobs!

Automation and artificial intelligence have been driving major shifts in the job market. As we come to terms with the inevitable proliferation of automation and artificial intelligence throughout our economy, it is important to recognize our dynamic relationships with technology.

And, more importantly, how technology can create jobs and amplify human jobs.

Technology eliminates jobs
Technology creates new jobs (and new industries!)
Technology empowers human workers
Technology is dismissed in favor of the human touch

Technology eliminates jobs

Alarmingly, we know that many jobs will be simply eliminated by technology. Forrester predicts that automation will eliminate 6% of all jobs in the US by 2021.

Well, that’s scary. That’s millions of jobs. Just gone.
Robot: 1. Charlie’s dad: 0

Machines, fundamentally, are good at repetitive tasks. The reality is that there are many things a robot can do just as well or better than a human. Low-skill manufacturing jobs have been disappearing in the US, mostly due to automation. But while many skeptics say that manufacturing in the US has been declining in the US, it’s actually booming. In the manufacturing sector, productivity is up while headcount is down. And specialized manufacturing continues to grow.

In this case, robots are directly replacing humans in the spirit of efficiency and productivity. While competition with automation is a reality, it is just one of many sub-plots on how the future of work will play out.

While the industrial revolution killed many jobs, the net result is positive economic growth. Many white collar sectors grew, while other jobs like blacksmith and carpenter decreased.

The key for would-be employees has always been to identify job categories where technology generates more demand for human workers. And, of course, to avoid career paths that are destined for extinction. (Not as simple as it sounds)

Attention job seekers: Don’t become a blacksmith!

Technology creates jobs…and industries!

While technology has always eliminated jobs, it also spawns not just new jobs, but entirely new industries. The industrial revolution, for example, and the advent of the PC which led to an explosion in accounting and engineering jobs.

Engineering and Accounting job growth

In this case, technology creates toolsets for employees do their jobs better. Technology helps productivity. The invention of personal computers lead the Internet era, which drove job growth in graphic design, software development, and all things Internet (Facebook, Google, Amazon, eBay, etc).

These lucrative industries didn’t exist before the technology behind the PC and the Internet evolved.

What industries will AI create? Too early to say.

Technology empowers human workers

The Internet also created an environment where distributed work can thrive. 900 million people are “knowledge workers” across the globe. In fact as many as 50 percent of the U.S. workforce has a job that lends itself to teleworking arrangements, and 3.7 million people work from home at least half the time. Technology provides the tools for our livelihood while giving us freedom to live almost anywhere.

Distributed work

Stitchfix is an example of a company that relies heavily on both human talent and technology support. Stitchfix employees 2000 freelance personal stylists to recommend clothing selections.

The Stitchfix secret sauce is, quite literally, human styling. But these human stylists, ironically, are heavily supported by AI styling tools if they need it. AI technologies empower these human employees, giving them the tools to do their best.

Stitchfix stylists with AI tools

Stylist Layla Katz of Stitchfix says

“I quickly realized the (AI dashboard) tool was my new BFF. It gives me confidence when my creative eye is saying this is a match and the science is saying the same thing….
How they come together is the magic.”

In many cases, technology eliminates part of an employee’s job, while freeing up time for an employee to do more valuable work. Bank ATMs are a great example of automation and self-service technology complementing a human job. The ATM completes basic banking services on behalf of the bank teller, while a human bank teller uses a computer to perform more service oriented banking tasks.

At first glance we would think that an ATM would replace a human bank teller altogether, much like how Expedia replaced many travel agents. But ATMs have not reduced bank teller jobs. Instead, the ATM takes on rudimentary takes that wasted the bank teller’s time, allowing them to focus on other bank services. While ATMs save the bank money in overall labor costs, the savings enables the bank to open more branches and therefore hire more tellers in the long run.

Technology is dismissed in favor of the human touch

Furthermore, banks depend on bank tellers for high end customer service, essentially differentiating from other banks with human service. In the case of ATMs, automation has increased efficiency, productivity, and customer satisfaction, but it has not eliminated jobs overall.

While the magic of technology offers many potential customer-facing benefits, many businesses reject human replacing technology on principle. For many companies, AI chatbots conflict with their core values.

Weebly, for example, promises to never offer tech support via chatbot. They are doubling down on humans. An automated service chatbot would create the risk of a negative, impersonal customer experience. Humans excel at personalized support, empathetic customer conversations, and relationship building. Customer care can be an important differentiator for service focused industries like e-commerce (Zappos) and retail (Nordstrom).

Humans FTW!

There is no doubt that technology has had a heavy hand in transforming human labor over the centuries. As we approach an era of advanced robotics, technology will threaten, compliment, and assist human performance. It’s important to realize the future of work is more complex than robots simply replacing people.

Yes, in some cases technology replaces human work but, more often than not, technology complements, empowers, and assists human potential.

This post is part of a series on the Future of Work. Check out

Future of Work: Job training for humans
Future of Work: Our love-hate relationship with technology
Future of Work: Learning the most important skill — teamwork