Just two weeks ago a poll found 40 percent of young people across nine countries believe their current jobs could be replaced by some form of automation within 10 years.
The UK did particularly badly: it scored lowest when it came to improving new skills in the workplace with a huge gender gap between those who said they have existing IT skills (62 percent for men to 33 percent for women).
It’s not a new concern. In 2013 an Oxford University study of 700 US jobs claimed almost half of them could be at risk of ‘computerisation’.
This makes the looming so-called ‘fourth industrial age’ of robotic process automation, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, big data, mobile and social technologies seem less an opportunity than a terrifying, uncharted threat.
The idea these technologies are set to destroy jobs is a chilling prospect for both young people entering the work place and those who have already embarked on career paths.
How can we compete with robots that can potentially do the work of three humans, work 24/7 and get the job done far faster? We can’t.
But if this nightmare vision sounds too awful to be true, maybe that’s because it is.
Activity displacer or jobs killer?
In reality, changes to the nature of our jobs will be less drastic, further away and more manageable than most people believe.
At least, that’s according to professor Leslie Willcocks, an expert in technology, work and globalisation at the London School of Economics. However, most tech specialists, academics and IT trade associations also seem to err on the side of cautious optimism.
“I don’t think it [automation] can be said to be in itself a job threat. In fact, it has sometimes increased jobs,” Willcocks says.
According to the professor, the issue is whether technology is used for efficiency, as part of a process, or to create products.
“People are jumping way ahead in saying there will be massive job losses. If used for efficiency, yes there will be some displacement of labour. But the fact is there have always been other jobs created. We haven’t ended up in a situation where there is high unemployment as a result of IT,” he says.
Rather than killing off jobs, technology will displace certain types of activity, according to US academics Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby.
It’s a subtle but crucial nuance. Instead of destroying labour, technology could actually create new jobs (as many as 13 for every 20 lost, according to Willcocks’ research). It will alter the nature of work but also augment human activity – no job will be untouched by technology, he says.
The much-discussed ‘data explosion’ will create jobs focused on analysing, monitoring and managing data, and new technology will create new forms of regulation and bureaucracy, Willcocks claims.
‘Taking the robot out of the human’
Humans will work in tandem with technology rather than be replaced by it, according to Gajen Kandiah, who is executive vice president of business process services at Cognizant.
“Automation has its limits. There are some things that robots just cannot do like medical management, underwriting, case reviews, speak or comprehend colloquial slang, understand people’s emotions and think on their feet,” he says.
The rise of robotic process automation is liberating people from unproductive work while creating whole new industries, according to Kandiah.
Willcocks agrees. “Enhancing human skills is a more effective and sustainable way of working than trying to automate everything,” he says.
He describes it as technology “taking the robot out of the human”.
Preparing for the future
All of the interviewees agree that for these potential benefits to come to fruition, we will need to prepare – both as individuals, and as a society – for the changes on the horizon.
Specialist and management skills will become more desirable, as will the ability to understand and process information, according to Willcocks. The ability to be creative and innovative will also become more important in the digital world, he says.
It will also become vital is to ensure as many people as possible develop a working knowledge of technology, according to Mark Horneff, managing director of video game developer Kuato Studios.
“The importance of teaching computer programming to our school children is becoming more and more apparent and for a reason. We hardly expect every child to become an accountant, yet it is necessary for everyone to be taught a basic understanding of maths,” he says.
For those still concerned for the future, Willcocks has one final, reassuring message: automation would be self-defeating if it destroyed marketplaces or consumers.
He tells a (potentially apocryphal) tale about Henry Ford II.
“Ford was showing the head of the car workers union around an automated assembly line. The Ford boss asked: “How are you going to get those robots to pay union fees?”
“Ah, but how are you going to get them to buy your cars?” the union boss replied.