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Will Robots Take Our Jobs?

Advancements in technology are changing the economy and workforce. Should we be worried?

Get ready for the rise of the robots.

Technological innovation and intelligent machinery have advanced at a breakneck pace. Unheard of even a few years ago, today’s bots drive cars, write articles, make financial trades, draft stories, analyze x-rays, compose music, farm land, and even flip burgers.

And the bots aren’t stopping there. Tomorrow’s mechanical workforce will only get smarter, faster and more productive.

One large-scale study recently predicted that 47 percent of all U.S. jobs could be automated within the next few decades. Further, many states have produced workforce disruption reports suggesting up to half of their jobs are at risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence. Last year, thought leaders from around the world discussed the “fourth industrial revolution” — a robot renaissance that could redefine tomorrow’s job market.

The forecast gets gloomy. As one recent Guardian headline puts it: “Robots will destroy our jobs — and we’re not ready for it.” A comprehensive report by McKinsey & Company, one of the largest consulting firms in the world, describes “a rich mosaic of potential shifts in occupations” that will muddle our labor landscape in the coming months and years. Less ambiguous and more sobering is best-selling author Martin Ford, who bluntly predicts a “jobless” future.

Is this the end of work as we know it?

Exposing the “Luddite Fallacy”

The unpredictability that accompanies technological growth can be frightening. But in reality, the threat of automation is hardly new. Two hundred years ago, a band of English textile workers — self-titled “Luddites” — stormed local factories, burned cotton mills and damaged the “labor-replacing” equipment that seemed to threaten their livelihood. But was the machinery a threat? With the passage of time, we see that technology did not leave existing workers destitute and jobless. In other words, the Luddites got it wrong.

Today, calling someone a “Luddite” refers to his or her irrational fear of technology. And in many ways, anxiety over technology is irrational. Whether we are talking about the cotton machinery that drew the ire of the Luddites or more modern technology like industrial manufacturing, banking ATMs or personal computers — innovative technology and automated processes have, in the long term, provided net benefits to society.

Like what? First, and contrary to our fears, advances in technology create more jobs. This includes jobs that have not previously existed. For example, a YouTube channel owner said he was able to start paying his bills with advertisement money made on YouTube once his channel hit a million views per month. But this is only one person. So, we might ask, how many channels on YouTube actually reach that volume?

Answer: 37,000.

You read that right. The self-populating database that’s only a little over a decade old is now responsible for more “jobs” than the five largest employers in my home state combined. Similarly, one estimate credits the personal computer with the creation of nearly 16 million new jobs since 1980. As these examples make clear, we can only imagine the new forms of work that will emerge in the months, years and decades to come.

Second, automation not only creates more jobs, but better jobs. A recent study found that automation in Britain was responsible for millions of new labor opportunities and, more importantly, these new occupations had higher wages. The logic is simple. As routine tasks get replaced by machinery, employees can be elevated to more productive forms of work.

This also includes more dignifying, humanizing labor. All work is valuable, but employee satisfaction is consistently linked to jobs that challenge and stimulate the mind (as opposed to prolonged repetitive tasks). For example, employees may be displaced from existing jobs in fields such as data entry or repetitive factory work, but they may find more satisfying labor in fields such as human services, problem-solving, education, craftsmanship, and so forth. This is one of the more hopeful prospects of automation — replacing routine assignments to create space for more relational, thoughtful and creative work.

The benefits do not end here. Automation can also produce more of the stuff we need (like food) and enjoy (like entertainment) at a lower price.

Preparing for Automation Disruption

So, the robots are coming, but as history has proven time and time again, this does not necessarily signal the end of jobs.

But there is an important caveat. While automation may not catapult us into the job apocalypse that some fearfully predict, the rise of the robots will leave a permanent imprint on life as we know it. Among other things, training and transitioning will be particularly important to navigate the complexities of an increasingly automated world.

As one author puts it, “Everybody will need to plan for a future that we can barely comprehend today.” So what should we consider as we foray into this future?

1. A Creative Economy

About 100 years ago, we began to move from an agricultural economy to a manufacturing economy. Though very different, both economies focused on producing something — whether food or cars, etc.

Today, however, we are in the midst of another shift into what is being described as a “creative” economy. To be clear, manufacturing and services will never go away. We will always make stuff, and we will always have the opportunity to provide services to others. But the creative economy is built around innovation — new methods of creating value.

Tomorrow’s work and jobs will more strongly focus on discovering creative and innovative forms of production. In other words, the creative economy will focus less on following an established set of instructions (a + b = c), and will be increasingly driven by ideas. Whether manufacturing a good or providing a service, a great deal of our economy will be tied to creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, knowledge and information. Design, culture, services, publishing — these and other creative fields will be the nuts and bolts of tomorrow’s economic architecture.

2. Soft Skills

In a world of rapid technological advancement, education may be more important than ever. But what kind of education? Traditional models of teaching focus on what can be described as “hard skills.” These are skills that are often cognitive in nature and easily measured. Linear algebra. Historical dates. The Periodic Table. Computer programming.

Hard skills matter. But as we progress into an automated future, “soft skills” — human qualities that are harder to measure — may be more important than ever before. These qualities include things like resilience, adaptability and conflict resolution.

In 2016, leaders at the World Economic Forum discussed the attributes necessary to be successful in the 2020 labor market: complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, emotional intelligence, negotiation and service orientation.

The theme is clear: soft skills. Education is important, but it can no longer be defined by what we know. The skills necessary for tomorrow’s job market will require more than just knowledge. Training, learning and growth must be concerned with what we are — our character.

3. Authentic Identity

In a tech-dominated world, it will become increasingly important to loosen our identity from the jobs and tasks we do. Gone are the days of graduating from college, securing a job and working until retirement.

Today’s workplace is characterized by job-hopping, with the average employee remaining with their employer 4.4 years. For millennials, this figure is even lower. Today’s graduate is expected to hold anywhere between 15 and 20 jobs over the course of his or her career. Some have even predicted a future where we do not hold one job, but several. Adults may work for a variety of companies simultaneously as opposed to receiving one paycheck from one employer.

Why does this matter? For many, identity is bound up in what they do. Ask people about themselves, and they are likely to tell you their job titles. But in a dynamic, ever-changing automated future, an identity rooted in one’s career is less realistic. Further, this can only invite anxiety. If human value is defined in terms of market value, a person’s self-worth will be severely limited at best or grossly disfigured at worst.

Feverishly working toward elusive ends like wealth, prestige and power at the expense of more meaningful and humanizing pursuits has always been a temptation. As Christians, we believe that grounding identity in work is never a good idea. Today, however, the stakes are higher. In a world of ever-expanding automation and whirlwind labor market change, the consequences of pursuing false gods are more sharp and severe.

As Christ followers, our identity is that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in our Creator’s image, and our beliefs and practices are established in our relationship with Christ. Our productive, creative and relational capacities make us distinctly human, and remind us that our identity is ultimately found in our relationships, in our community, and in being a child of God.

A lot has changed over the last 50 years. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, bots, drones, algorithms and other complex automated machinery are multiplying at a dizzying pace. And yet workforce participation for adults has actually increased over the last half century.

There is good reason to believe that the next 50 years will mirror this trend — with significantly altered dimensions of our daily lives. New jobs may form, but transitioning from outdated jobs to new and unknown work will present its own set challenges.

What is constant in such a dynamic world?

Among other things, we will always have work: the opportunity to exercise our God-reflecting capacities to glorify Him and serve others. Rather than a threat, we can view automation as an invitation to develop our creative capacities — a God-given gift that differentiates us from robots.

Copyright 2018 Kevin Brown. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown is an associate professor of business at Asbury University.  Prior to higher education, he worked for nearly a decade in the banking industry, serving as a market president in his last four years there. His graduate background incorporates economics, philosophy and theology — and his research seeks to explore the interplay between these fields.

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