how automation is stealing jobs and accidentally empowering populists

Automation is responsible for most jobs lost in the industrial world and could replace as much as two thirds of the developing world’s workforce. Why are we still pretending it’s decades away?

ping pong against robot

Despite what you may have been told, automation is not a conspiracy by a tech-obsessed cult of rich people to cull humanity. In fact, as a new series from Gizmodo correctly shows, it’s often a haphazard process of companies figuring out that a lot of things for which they currently hire or used to employ people can now be done with a few hundred, or a couple of thousand lines of code, or just a simple robot programmed to take over a repetitive task. Far from being some sort of systemic march towards peak automation and minimal workforces, automation surges in one profession while slowly creeping in another, and even within the same industry, it can completely reshape one company and totally miss another.

Generally, the decision to automate comes down to two things: management being aware that a process needs to or could be automated, and the numbers making sense. Jobs that could easily be digitized are out there and often times, they’re left alone because it’s just cheaper or easier to have humans do them for now. Consider that despite the fact that cashiers will inevitably be replaced by so-called frictionless shopping, they’ll still be around for a long time because the technology is expensive to implement and people still aren’t used to the idea of being able to just load up a cart or a basket and walk out of the store.

But they’ll eventually be gone. It’s just a matter of when, not if. As much as half of the industrial world and nearly two thirds of jobs in developing nations could be taken over by computers by the middle of the century. And while people seem aware of automation impacting employment, they seem to think that it’s a lot farther off than it actually is, and assume that future generations will have to deal with it while their jobs are actually being lost to immigrants, offshore labor, or plain old managerial malfeasance and discrimination, even though nearly nine times out of ten there’s a machine doing the job they thought they’d be doing for at least another decade.

who usually gets automated and why?

This disparity in how jobs are automated is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to recognize as a threat, the other being that often times, automation targets employees close to retirement in jobs that are ripe to be taken over by machines, and layoffs often coincide with other issues the business is facing. And this brings us to a common thread in many of these stories exemplified by one anecdote about an intern who was supposed to create a 3D printing process which would make a mold-setting job completely irrelevant, a mold-setting job occupied by a man with more than 30 years of experience.

At first, Gary was friendly, eager to show a new hand the ropes. After he realized what was happening — well, less so. “Each time we spoke, I was closer to making a working product — and more nervous about telling him how things were going,” Winick writes. “I felt that by doing so, I was letting him know how close he was to losing his job.” But the project moved ahead, and the company said it would retrain Gary to work on the new printers. It turned out he wasn’t much interested in learning a new job three decades into his career, however, and took the news as the latest in a long line of slights from management. 

In several other stories, and in my experience, this happens quite frequently. Older employees aren’t necessarily targeted because they’re older, but because the job they’re doing is overdue for modernization. It often involves something that couldn’t be automated because the code to do it would’ve been too complicated or require capabilities so specialized that it would’ve been too expensive to touch. It can also be something a company that’s been around for decades just never thought about changing because it’s been running so smoothly and management never had to worry about it until someone saw room for improvement and crunched the numbers. And that’s when the trouble starts.

Older workers are usually not expecting that towards the end of their careers, they’ll be told to go back and train to do something new. Many are from a generation which has no basis for expecting such requests from their bosses, especially after 20 or 30 plus years doing similar things in relative comfort. Quite a few will take it as a personal offense, especially if their friends are finishing up their careers in peace, unaffected by automation initiatives, unable to explain why their jobs are suddenly changing because they too have no basis for expecting a sudden change to their jobs, much less having them taken over by computers.

And so these older workers will accuse their managers of trying to oust them due to ageism or replace them with cheap foreign labor, which may be true as well and is hardly unheard of in many industries, especially ones relying heavily on technology. Then, at election time, armed with disdain and nursing a grudge, they’ll vote for politicians who pretend automation doesn’t exist and who promise a return to the good old days, even if that’s impossible and their attempts to do so will sabotage their children’s futures. Even worse, it’s not just the older workers who react this way to automation initiatives.

why aren’t people being retrained?

Younger workers in unkilled jobs are also affected by automation but they are also proving to be extremely resistant to retraining programs, especially in small towns where automation is killing industries that traditionally employed several generations. Why? If you were to listen to right wing pundits, it’s either because they’re lazy or because “globalists rigged the economy against real Americans” in some harebrained Jew World Order conspiracy. But in reality, if you look at the descriptions of what passes for job training programs in many such towns, they’re not really taught much. Or anything useful for that matter.

Instead of being given new marketable and desirable skills, they’re told how to add to the flood of buzzword-laden resumes on job sites or take expensive trade classes that might get them a job three states over, if not across the country. Their choice is either to do something they know full well is like playing the lottery or spend money they don’t have or desperately need to start a new career in a new place, maybe. So, it’s really no wonder they’re not too thrilled about going to job training seminars or get behind politicians promising more job training to solve their woes because they immediately picture cold, bad coffee, and pamphlets promising them little more than uncertainty.

It’s even worse when we consider just how many jobs are currently going unfilled, more than 7.1 million. That’s more jobs than there are people actively looking for one, and in a world in which government and companies actually cared about dealing with such blatant and obvious resource misallocations, making sure people have the opportunity to quickly learn the desired skills and get to work would be one of the most urgent priorities for the powers that be. Just think of the economic returns of injecting over 7 million jobs into the economy and the political benefits of a plan to help people productively deal with rapid change. But since that won’t reflect in the market next quarter, but years from now, no one seems to care.

And that’s really the catch when we automate jobs and plan to retrain those who’ll be displaced by machines. We need to give the people in question a concrete transition plan and match the transferable skills they might have to current jobs that need to be done by humans, and enroll them in classes and programs meant to actually develop the workforce of the future. That will take vision, coordination, and selling the idea to multiple, possibly competing interests, not a job that’s easy to pull off. But it absolutely beats the existing disorganization and anger empowering populists with empty promises blaming minorities and foreigners for something we’re very much doing to ourselves. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with knowledge to get a jump start on what you’ll need to stay ahead of the machines. You working future will depend on it.

# tech // automation / job training / jobs / populism

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