A persistent fear permeates the American workforce. Many laborers in the United States have long worried some vague “other” would rush in and take all the good jobs, leaving the average American worker unemployed and unable to provide for themselves or their family. Once upon a time, this alarmist rhetoric was wielded almost solely against immigrants. Today, however, the focus has shifted, at least in part. Today, it’s the robots and artificial intelligence (AI) that have us worried.
But is the fear of robot job thieves just as misguided as the fear of immigrants?
While it’s certainly true that many jobs – especially unskilled jobs – have been automated out of existence in recent decades, the US is also experiencing consistently low unemployment. And according to a new report from ZipRecruiter, 60 percent of job seekers say they think worries about automation replacing human jobs are overhyped.
“I think that many people rightly believe that technology will have a large impact on the labor market, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should expect mass unemployment,” says Cathy Barrera, chief economist for ZipRecruiter.
While ZipRecruiter’s report found that 41 percent of job seekers believe their current job will be automated in their lifetime, it also found a clear majority of workers believe the threat of AI is embellished.
“This indicates to me that people are optimistic about their ability to adapt to these changes,” Barrera says. “They think their current job will be automated, but they don’t expect to be there when that happens.”
This is perhaps the most useful way to look at the future of work: Just because many jobs will be automated, that doesn’t mean workers won’t have time to adapt, or that new types of work won’t spring up to replace those that fade away.
“Of course these technologies will be disruptive, especially in the long run, and some categories of jobs may be all but eliminated,” says Barrera. “But there will be many new jobs available. The challenge will be to ensure job seekers have the right skills to fill those new positions. We need to make sure that resources are available to workers and job seekers who are likely to face a transition as a result of technology, and we need to ensure that those resources are affordable.”
Where One Door Closes
When a job gets automated out of existence, the challenge for a job seeker becomes translating the skills they acquired in that previous role into a new area. The new jobs that arise in automation’s wake are often quite different from what came before.
For example, Barrera notes that as the number of retail jobs in the brick-and-mortar space plummets, new roles are being created in warehousing and delivery as eCommerce thrives.
“In addition, part of what made brick-and-mortar stores so valuable in the past was strong customer support, thanks to in-store employees,” Barrera continues. “The retail stores that are not closing are adapting to the competition with eCommerce. They are shifting away from clerk positions and more toward customer support positions, which require soft skills such as communication and have a very low chance of being replaced by automation.”
With U.S. unemployment holding steadily below five percent, it is a job seeker’s market. Employers have trouble filling open positions and must loosen their criteria, which is good news for anyone who may need to transition to a new field. Nearly two-thirds of job seekers feel the quantity and quality of jobs is higher now than in the past, according to the ZipRecruiter study.
“In terms of quantity, I say it is very easy to point to examples where jobs are disappearing, but it is quite difficult to imagine the new types of jobs that will be created,” Barrera says. “For this reason, it seems as though jobs are disappearing and there aren’t new categories on the horizon to replace them. But historically, technology has not lead to mass unemployment, and there is no reason to believe it will this time.”
Barrera notes that new industries – such as green energy, drones, and marijuana – are on the rise. Moreover, additional industries we haven’t yet imagined will certainly follow suit. These new industries will create jobs to replace the roles lost to robots.
“As far as quality is concerned, it is important to note that technologies are best at, and tend to replace, the most routine tasks,” Barrera says. “For a variety of jobs, this means that workers will be able to shift their focus from time-consuming rote tasks to more engaging ones. We already see this happening.”
For example, Barrera cites automated software solutions that help medical professionals complete paperwork more quickly, giving them more time to spend with patients.
In short – yes, some jobs will eventually be replaced by robots, but let’s not start planning the food riots just yet. Savvy workers should stay abreast of the latest trends in their industries, and they will do their best to upskill and remain relevant. Meanwhile, responsible companies will offer resources to employees whose jobs are automated so that they can transition to new positions or qualify for opportunities elsewhere.