Watch Out Robots, We Are Coming For Your Jobs
For those that don’t know me, I love to contemplate the future. I am a futurist at heart. There is something about imagining what comes next that serves as a catalyst for infinite intrigue. If you are a Black Mirror fan, perhaps endless anxiety. There is no novelty in stating that the past 40 years have resulted in a complete overhaul of society by way of exponential advancement and adoption of technology. Life of the 1980s is practically unrecognizable. And because of the contrite hair and clothing styles forever connected to the 1980s, there is an argument to be made that may be a good thing. I would love nothing more than to support that argument with a picture of my Mother and Father from 1983, but those relationships are important to me, so I will digress.
The climate change narrative has captured so much of the sustainability movement’s attention (environmental) that we often lapse focus on the other three categories of sustainability; human, economic, and social. Respectively, these are defined as:
- Human Sustainability: aims to maintain and improve human capital in society. Investments in the health and education systems, access to services, nutrition, knowledge, and skills are all elements of human sustainability.
- Social Sustainability: investments and services that create the basic framework for society by maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as cohesion, reciprocity, and honesty.
- Economic Sustainability: aims to improve the standard of living.
True sustainability requires a balanced ecosystem amongst all four.
One such futurist topic I am often asked about with potential wide-reaching impacts on human and economic sustainability centers on the concern over automation and robots displacing a large percentage of the human workforce. A simple Google search will convince you that 75 million jobs will be lost to automation by 2030. This includes truck drivers to autonomous vehicles, assembly & warehouse workers to robotics and grocery clerks to AI technology. For those interested, check out this excellent McKinsey report titled “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation”.
There are many dystopian views on the subject, namely that automation is going to drive increased corporate profits at the expense of millions of jobs. Right, wrong, or indifferent, the debate is less around if, and more around when. As Simon Sinek notes in his book The Infinite Game, businesses, particularly publicly traded ones, are designed to drive profit with a finite mindset. Consider quarterly earnings, annual sales targets, and short-term stock options. Business leaders do what it takes to achieve immediate profits because that is how they are incentivized and compensated. Thus, if automation can increase income for shareholders, then it will happen. In fact, it is happening.
For the purpose of this article, let’s assume the automation revolution does indeed occur as anticipated and said impacts are realized. As an infinite minded futurist, I want to contemplate what happens after robots and automation disrupt the human workforce. For me, the best way to do so is to parallel the concept with something similar, the environmental sustainability movement.
For many decades environmental responsibility took a back seat to corporate profits. The finite mentality consistently won because the effects were not felt in real-time. No longer. The physical impacts of such actions are now being progressively felt, and an infinite mentality is emerging. Significant self-imposed shifts in consumer and employee habits are driving a sweeping cultural change, and businesses are being forced to respond. The irony? It is leading to more profits. Despite initial reluctance to embrace ESG, the rise in responsible governance and investments have driven ESG focused companies to greater profit margins than those still lacking adoption.
This is what happens when our backs are against the wall.
Now let’s imagine it is 2040. Our backs are against the wall yet again as a result of the automation revolution displacing a mass number of jobs. Sustainability is once again a threat to our societal well being via an existential threat. Do we implement a universal basic income? Do we spend billions of dollars to train workers in applicable modern-era skillsets? Unfortunately, if history has shown us anything, it is that mass intervention-based options are unlikely.
But I am an optimist. I believe we will solve the problem naturally. Consumer habits, as they have during the environmental sustainability movement, will radically shift. Companies will revert and separate themselves through “we employ humans” campaigns and consumers will gravitate to those companies just as they are gravitating toward environmentally responsible companies today. Many children being born today will witness their parents go through hard times, and once adults, make conscious efforts to affect change. This is precisely what is happening with the climate change movement, and there is no reason to believe things will be any different if, or more likely when, the automation revolution occurs.
Watch out robots, we are coming after your jobs.
Side note….it turns out finding a cover image of a robot with 80s hair is extremely difficult.