Will we all lose our jobs to robots?

I hear a lot these days about how we're all going to lose our jobs to robots. 

There are thousands of articles out there painting a terrible picture of what our future is going to look like (side note: they often do this as a self-interested plug for the abomination that is Universal Basic Income, but that is another post). These authors stoke fear that we will all become essentially unemployed; particularly those who are lesser trained. They posit that our world will be run by automation.

Firstly and to be clear – we are not all about to lose our jobs to robots. It's a preposterous assertion. I think the biggest challenge in this is that people cannot see what's ahead and uncertainty makes them fearful. Plus it’s not themselves they’re worried about. Most people feel like they’ll be ok with change – they can re-skill or adapt, but they’re worried about their father or their neighbour or their colleague, who might not have their own flexibility and willingness to change.

Of course, it is very challenging to predict the future and there is a lot of more or less credible research in this space. McKinsey has deep-dived into the issue with a series of reports; they suggest around 30 per cent of the work done in 60 per cent of occupations could be automated. That’s a useful insight when we look at likely changes and even consider how automation has influenced the shape of our current labour market.

There are some bleedingly obvious examples. When cars were invented and over time the roles of carriage drivers and owners of Cobb & Co stations became obsolete the economy didn’t collapse. A manual task was made easier and for many, the slow shift meant they could re-train as we saw demand rise for mechanics and drivers. The introduction of that technology opened up so many new avenues and types of jobs ways of working that we didn't know about before. It wasn't fathomable to those people who lived in goldrush era how things would change with the introduction of the car.

The advent of driverless cars may in turn reduce demand for uber drivers, but we’ll inevitably see new jobs created as opportunities are opened up by new technology. We might not know what they are yet, but they are likely to be safer, cleaner and easier.

That’s because many of the jobs that have been subject to automation – and frankly, industries where they serve the most benefit – are in the dirty, the hard and the unsafe. Think of work in mines and on factory floors. Robots can make dangerous jobs safer.

It’s also in the easily replicable, and these roles are not always low-skilled. Accountants have been aided in the invention of computers and calculators and algorithms (much easier than an abacus). Now, the advent of those technologies haven’t made accountants obsolete – if anything, they’re more in demand than ever – but it has meant they can diversify what they do. The effort previously focused upon boring, mundane tasks has shifted to personal tax planning and tailored financial advice. Lawyers, for example, are considered highly vulnerable to technological change. 

Overall, this largely means we have to be aware that we do when we retire (our job roles and our titles) might end up being something that right now doesn't even exist. Us millennials need to be ok with that. The skills each of us use will evolve and change as technology does, as it always has.