Is Your Job at Risk of the Digital Revolution?

For as long as people have toiled away in the fields, in factories, and in office buildings, Luddites have existed.

Originating in the early 19th Century England, ‘Luddite’ was a term given to describe people that actively sabotaged those things which threatened their jobs (and livelihoods). In the case of then rapidly-industrialising England, cotton and wool mills bore the brunt of workers’ fears.

In hindsight, this five-year period, between 1811 and 1816, proved relatively insignificant, considering the gradual changes brought on by technology since. But the fears and attitudes held by these Luddites have survived the test of time.

The rapid advancement of technology in the 200 years since has only served to undermine job security in the workforce. More than ever, we can say with a degree of confidence that some existing jobs will face extinction in the decade ahead. Such is the inevitable consequence of change.

While it would be remiss to call such changes ‘progress’, they are, as a matter of fact, a move in a direction. Whether one deems it the right or wrong direction is beside the point. It is. And railing against that which is can be a sure-fire way of driving oneself crazy.

Yet even if we, as workers, try to stay ahead of the curve by predicting these changes in advance, we come up against roadblocks.

You can spend your entire life training in preparation for the potential extinction of your job. Yet change — which remains a constant — requires us to be perpetually vigilant, always needing to add skills to occupations whose scopes keep expanding.

Yet there’s a difference between adding skills to improve efficiency in what you already know, and completely wiping out the need for your position. This is precisely why the Luddite mindset persists to this day.

Most people fear the unknown. They panic about the prospects of a world in which their skillsets render them surplus to requirement. And who are we to say that they shouldn’t?

But does all this sound too alarmist? Haven’t these fears existed throughout time, predating even the Luddites themselves?

They have, that’s true. Equally, it’s also true that entire industries have collapsed in the past, without causing permanent damage to the workforce. Not only that, but the creative destruction which birthed new industries has given life to occupations that may not have existed otherwise. Technology has created as many, if not more, jobs than it has destroyed.

Yet every single generation stands at the precipice of the unknown. History does rhyme, but until we hit the same notes as those that came before us, we can’t help but wonder, ‘what if it’s different this time?’

It’s no exaggeration to say that the white collar jobs which dominate the market today haven’t faced the kind of threats that digital automation and robotics pose. Considering most of these people won’t be seeing a tractor or assembly line anytime soon, where would they go?

Before we answer that, let’s first look at how extensive the effects of this technological trend are likely to be in the coming decades.

According to a new paper by StartupAUS, up to 4.6 million jobs in Australia are at risk of becoming underqualified as a result of the ongoing digital revolution. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

The paper, Economy in Transition — Startups, innovation and a workforce for the future, was released on Thursday by StartupAUS, the national start-up advocacy group. The paper highlights the impact technological change is having on the workforce, but also the need for innovation and start-up policies to capitalise on new opportunities, StartupAUS CEO Alex McCauley said.

Those most at risk from automation are in accommodation and food services, transportation and warehousing, retail, manufacturing and administrative and support services; jobs least affected will involve high levels of human creativity or social intelligence.

According to LinkedIn Data, 16 of the 20 most in-demand skills in Australia are technology related, and there will be a growing demand for workers with a combination of entrepreneurial…creative, and social skills.

We can’t say with complete certainty what this digital revolution will look like, but we have a fairly good idea. While there may not be an artificially intelligent robotic clerk walking around your office anytime soon, the underlying processes which power it, in the form of algorithmic programs and software, could replace existing positions in many workplaces.

To be fair, the StartupAUS report isn’t talking about the replacement of such jobs. It’s referring to the fact that 4.6 million Aussie workers will need to improve their skillsets to qualify for the digitally-driven jobs of tomorrow.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Given the option to automate positions that would allow companies to cut salary expenditures altogether, most companies would bite your hand off. More importantly, these digitally-driven jobs of tomorrow are at threat of being usurped by advanced artificial intelligence themselves. So it’s not so much about whether you’ll know how to operate in a digitally-driven environment. It’s about whether you’ll be needed at all.

And it’s this threat that we should be more concerned about.

To give you an example, consider what you now see when you step into a McDonalds restaurant.

You will have noticed the towering edifices standing near the counter. These are self-serving machines, as you’re probably aware. You order the food yourself, you receive a ticket, and you wait for your order to arrive.

You could argue that McDonalds doesn’t really need people serving at the counter anymore. They still do, because these transitions take time to play out. But it won’t be long before you see a different McDonalds to what you’ve become accustomed to.

What’s more, the jobs that aren’t automated will require more responsibilities from people that hold those positions. After all, the food you ordered still needs to be delivered to you, to continue with the McDonalds example.

Inevitably, McDonalds could employ the assistance of a robot to walk around doing all the menial work, while delivering orders, at little expense to the business — compared to paying people wages, anyway. But that’s still some way off. The easier option for now would be to hybridise the role of chefs at McDonalds.

In this hypothetical scenario, chefs might not only be required to cook the food, but to prepare and deliver it to the customer waiting out the front as well.

In a very roundabout way, this proves quite analogous to what StartupAUS is saying. The McDonalds chef, in this instance, would have to become comfortable in dealing with customers — a skill they may not have. In other words, to keep their job, they would need to develop completely different skillsets.

Ultimately, though, the menial jobs, which can be programmed out of existence, can’t prepare for the digital revolution. Some of these jobs will become the domain of artificial intelligence. And no amount of preparation will suffice.

The jobs that will survive through ‘preparation’ are those that can’t be fully automated — not yet anyway. But these people may be forced to take on more responsibilities in a bid to justify their positions. (And we’re just talking about non-creative roles here. Woe betide us when AI is sufficiently capable of creative thinking.)

Ultimately, the biggest losers from the ramp up in automation, in the short term, are likely to be young students. These jobs, while not comparatively expensive to big business, are also the easiest to replace.

Yet, for those whose positions appear relatively safe for now, they too will need to become more adaptable, just like the McDonalds cook.

But there’s another aspect to this that we haven’t touched on yet. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Bridget Loudon, CEO of Expert360, said the paper revealed the growing need for independent work and specialist freelancers in an “on-demand economy”.

In a competitive global landscape, businesses “need to be able to tap into skills quickly”, she said. “Now technology allows people to connect in real time for work as they need it. Companies can get people on demand people can get work on demand.

There’s so many more jobs and projects in the system because companies realise they can get people [as they need them],” she said. “We’re going to see that type of role explode in the Australian economy.”

None of that should inspire much confidence. It might sound chic and trendy in theory, but we’re essentially talking about a jobs market in which the predominant form of work is contract based.

The idea of an Uber-style job market should send shivers down the spine of anyone who professes to enjoy job security. Proponents may paint such a development as a forward-thinking…as an environment in which entrepreneurialism flourishes…where people with full time jobs, take on extra work at the tap of a button, in much the same way as they would arranging an Uber ride. Yet it sounds an awful lot like a world in which people scrap for insecure odd jobs.

That arrangement might work for big business. But it would leave most people exasperated and fearful. But maybe that’s just the Luddite in me talking.

A utopia or a prison?

Aside from those that point to history as an indicator that Luddite fears are unfounded, another oft-used retort to downplay the potential effects of mass unemployment driven by technology is this: Authorities would never allow it, as there would be a revolution on the streets.

There must, of course, be a tipping point to mass unemployment. In a world where everything is automated, and not a single person works, something would have to give. In such a circumstance, we’d all either be living in a utopian paradise, or in prison camps.

But how bad would it have to get to test the resolve of the masses? As bad as 22.7% unemployment, like in Spain? 25.6%, as in Greece? There is discontent in both nations, but no revolution. And that’s in a world in which AI has barely scraped the surface of its potential.

What, then? 50%? 75%? Your guess is as good as mine. But we have a good idea of what prevents uprisings. Governments need to ensure that people have a roof over their heads, and that they eat with some regularity. Beyond that, everything is negotiable.

Maybe we are headed for a world in which robots perform both menial and creative jobs. The rest of us will live in five by five metre units, while government drones leave daily rations at our front door.

As the working age population falls on the back of declining birth rates — and as artificial intelligence and robotics takes its place in society — it does give you some pause for thought. It’s not inconceivable that we are moving towards a world in which humanity transcends its traditional role as ‘toilers’ altogether.

Either way, most people give little thought to such long term projections.

In the shorter term, the important thing is this: If your occupation is under threat from the ongoing digital revolution, make a note of it, and expand your skillsets to meet these challenges head on. If it isn’t, you’ll still need to keep abreast of the changes taking place as technological upheaval continues apace. Your occupation will likely be next.

Mat Spasic,

Contributor, Markets and Money

PS: The introduction of ATMs is an example of technology reducing the need for clerks serving customers. But it might not be long before ATMs become obsolete.

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