Ever since machines were employed to replace human labor, economists and futurists at many critical junctures of history kept bringing up the notion that robots will render humans unemployed.
Though on the surface it looks like many employees were displaced from their jobs, by observing closely, it is evident that it has also increased the volume of jobs created.
For instance, when Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) were first introduced, it did put many bankers who were associated with teller jobs out of work.
However, due to fewer costs and increased productivity of ATMs, banks could scale up and open multiple branches, leading to increased employment. Also, with ATMs handling the less cognitive tasks, employees could focus on tasks that required a human quotient, like, building customer relationships.
Indeed, one example of a certain sector does not represent all the diverse sectors of a corporate industrial setup. However, many stories like the above show that the emergence of technology will not totally curb us of our employment opportunities.
Nevertheless, there is another side to the story. According to a study by PricewaterCoopers, in 2020, the share of the jobs at potential risk of automation will be around 3%. This will exponentially rise to 20% by 2030 and to 30% by 2035. Another study from World Economic Forum (WEF) states that, currently, the percentage ratio of work hours completed by humans to that of robots is 71:29. This will significantly alter to 58:42 in just around 4 years.
Upon observing statistics like these, it is understandable to speculate if this time will be like every other time when we effectively leveraged technology to create more jobs, or if things will be different this time around.
Experts emphasize that this time will be different!
What makes this era different from the past ones is that society is more stratified than ever.
Automation and its prospects have divided the masses into 2 broad categories, say A and B. A is well-off, highly educated, and is enjoying the best life. While B is a daily wage worker or a blue-collar worker. These two groups have clashing opinions and none of them is wrong.
If automation succeeds in stripping us of our jobs, which most experts believe it will, it will not hit the entire workforce in the same way.
Even though studies show that with automation, as productivity increased and wealth exponentially raised, the living standards of low and middle-income households kept dwindling.
So this brings us to the challenges that automation will put forth not technically or scientifically but economically and socially.
Automation will magnify the economic inequality and worsen its implications.
For instance, according to reports from the congressional budget office, in the US alone, the household income of the top 20% managed to increase exponentially whereas the middle 60% and the bottom 20% weren’t able to gauge any noticeable growth.
This shows that the increasing wealth and productivity are captured by a thin slice of people at the top of the income ladder.
Also, automation will pose the biggest threat to middle-class workers. Experts claim that some jobs that we know today will disappear and never return. Unfortunately, the middle-class workforce will bear the brunt of such a transformation.
Consequently, automation will restructure the income ladder to knock out the middle class as a whole and induce extreme polarities in the society; with the well-off reveling in their wealth and the bottom masses existing only to preserve the upper few.
These are the consequences of the economic disparities amplified by automation.
A wise man once said, “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” This is a fact!
With automation displacing workers and not only robbing them of their employment but also rendering them unemployable, the lower strata of the workforce fall into the dark side.
Remember the two categories of people introduced above, A and B? A represents the wealthy, top-income bunch, and B, the lower-income, or blue-collar workforce.
Studies show that, as automation kept increasing, A’s standard of living progressed while B’s diverged to the bottom.
A’s job prospects, family well-being, societal image, and cultural values kept advancing while B was witnessing an overall all-time low. Studies show that with increasing unemployment and the consequent implications, B’s moral values compromised, and with time, B represented a percentage of the population that went to prison.
On a whole A was contributing and thriving in the society whereas B was turning into an outcast.
Automation alone is not to be blamed for this. However, it will sure catalyze the catastrophe of widespread unemployment. What’s most unfortunate is, automation will primarily put youth on the pedestal of unemployment. Ironic as it sounds, reports from Brookings Institution claim that workers aged 16-25 are at 49% job automation risk; following them is, the workforce aged 25-54, with a job automation risk of 40%.
So, what are we saying? Should we just wait around for robots to come and occupy our seats? No, of course not!
Humanity has successfully made it through 3 industrial revolutions and is gearing up for the fourth. We have always found ways to turn the odds around. It is no exaggeration to say that we will succeed in building a world where humans and robots work side by side.
So the question is, are you still sulking that the job you’re working right now is going to disappear or are you ready to transform yourself to suit the transforming future?
It is a common argument that jobs won’t completely disappear and that new jobs will make their way to the market. So, it is natural that people need to hone new skills; future-ready, disaster-proof, automation-proof skills that machines cannot replace. The workforce must be trained to function in cognizance with robots.
Entrepreneurship must be encouraged. In a world where job prospects dwindle, entrepreneurs are the only ones that can revitalize the job market. Also, an automated world without a complementary ecosystem of startups and entrepreneurs is unlikely. They are vital in uncovering opportunities lying dormant in various fields.
This goes without saying - policymakers and industrialists must work towards improving infrastructure. Considering how advanced the field of automation is, treasure troves of its potential will go to waste if the obsolete infrastructure isn’t replaced with the latest models.
It is necessary to strengthen Institutions.
For instance, when tractors were first introduced, many farmworkers were put out of work. Consequently, they were compelled to enroll in schools and colleges. This had an unconscious impact on the workforce, as it increased their skill. Today we know for certain that none of the technological advancements we’re experiencing would be possible without education.
Similarly, to prepare ourselves and future generations for the era of automation, institutions must be strengthened.
One overlooked aspect is wise spending of wealth. After automation has rewarded us with quite some staggering sums; if we lack proper investment strategies, it is all for nothing. So, federations, entrepreneurs, business moguls, and other stakeholders must be discerning to invest in cost-effective ways that ensure better returns.
The bottom line is, as it stands, no one knows if robots will really replace us. However, what we do know and is undeniable is human ingenuity. So, the closest we can get to see the future is building one we’re ready for!