Blog: Are Robots really stealing our Jobs?
Our world is changing, more dramatically and faster than ever before. The well-documented technological revolution is well underway and shows no signs of slowing, with significant changes to our way of life continually developing, demanding that we keep up.
The way we communicate and access information has been radically altered in the last couple of decades by the growth and widespread adoption of the internet, leading to huge benefits in addition to a range of problems such as misinformation and deteriorating mental health.
The creation and widespread adoption of the gig economy, projected to be worth over $450bn globally by 2023, has promoted the adoption of freelance work, further pushing employees who seek a work/life balance away from the more traditional career paths of previous generations. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working venues such as WeWork were beginning to fill up across major cities, as the number of freelancers rose.
One of the greatest issues now facing humans across the globe is the potential for mass job-displacement in the face of the growing use of automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) within organisations. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) predicts that roughly 7.4% of jobs in England are in immediate danger of becoming obsolete due to automation.
The adoption of AI and automation within the workplace has a wide range of obvious and immediate benefits. Online grocery retailer, Ocado, has invested huge sums of money into the development of numerous automated warehouses around the UK. These warehouses have reduced the number of employees required to package over 300,000 unique baskets every week to their customers, with greater efficiency and accuracy than their human counterparts would have.
Further benefits became apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, as orders soared and demand grew higher than ever before, these machines were able to continue working around the clock, whilst minimising the spread of the virus had a human workforce been used in its place.
The purchase, upkeep and maintenance of these machines are less costly than the cost of human employment. Human employment also requires training for each individual, is susceptible to illness and therefore time off work, as well as has their human rights with regards to safe working conditions and payment. Naturally, machines are less likely to go on strike due to lack of payment for their services and if they are unwell, can be fixed and sent straight back to work.
Furthermore, these machines are built to be more efficient, therefore making the use of human employment near enough redundant for tasks that could be done for less by machines. This also affects sustainability, with most machines being built to reduce their power consumption, usually to reduce costs, but with a byproduct of less damage to our natural environment.
The Human Cost
As the benefits of adopting machines increases, organisations in all markets are constantly seeking new ways to reduce their overheads and becoming more efficient in the hope of greater profitability. In many organisations, the automating of tasks has resulted in staff finding themselves with more time for tasks that cannot be automated within the workplace.
A reduction in monotonous tasks (those that are easily automated) has been shown to increase workplace happiness and productivity, enabling organisations to tap into the creative potential of their workforce in a manner not previously available to them. However, in organisations where there is little scope for employees to be better utilised, many have found themselves without a job and looking for work, becoming victims to job-loss as a direct consequence of their employers adopting automation.
Many of the jobs most vulnerable to extinction are what many would consider to be low-skilled jobs with those in transportation, manufacturing and storage most at risk. However, this is a widespread issue, with up to 56% of finance, accounting and payroll jobs also at risk.
On the other end of the spectrum, the jobs least at risk are those that are highly-skilled, that require human interaction and jobs that require creativity. Lawyers, healthcare professionals, teachers and artists are all considered to be amongst the jobs least in danger of being automated in the near future.
We are left with a multi-faceted problem. The workplace has been changing, with less jobs-for-life and employees demanding a greater work/life balance. “Low-skilled” jobs are becoming rapidly displaced due to a growing move towards automation, whilst those that remain in their jobs have seen their wages suppressed due to the competition created by these machines. Many of those that have found themselves without work find themselves at a loss, with a skill set that is no longer needed in a world that is moving on without them.
Many of those made redundant find themselves needing to retrain, but with the ever growing costs of education compounded by a lack of income, acquiring a new skill set is not always a straightforward solution. What we are left with instead is growing number many lower-class, low-skilled workers applying for a diminishing number of jobs, playing a cruel version of musical chairs at the bottom of the employment pyramid, with the seats available rapidly approaching zero.
What are we trying to achieve?
The answers to this can be debated endlessly, but many outcomes are almost universally accepted as something that we collectively wish to see. Employees want a work/life balance that allows them time to live as well as to work. People want a healthy environment, in a world that is green and prosperous with vast oceans and green space. There is a desire to live sustainably and reduce our impact on the environment. We want all citizens to have a good quality of living, with the opportunity and the support to acquire wealth to better their lives in addition to access to healthcare and help provided to those that need it.
None of these things are radical.
The majority of the “western world” operates within a capitalist system, a system that has delivered the world in which we operate, but not without its flaws. The greatest of these flaws is the damage that the unrelenting pursuit of continual growth has done, with new markets explored vigorously to without duty or care, whilst older markets have become squeezed to meet ever growing demands.
Taking this all into consideration, finding a solution to the economic issues that are presented is difficult. Ensuring that those who find themselves without work and unable to find work are catered for is a top priority. But how do we ensure that we do not end up with a large portion of our workforce out of work?
Possibilities for the future
Within many organisations, there has been a drastic change in focus on developing skills for the future. Within accounting, there has been an acceptance of the presence of Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the workplace. Big Data (data sets that have been traditionally too large to process and analyse), is now at the centre of data analysis, especially for large organisations that have collated masses of data for decades and are now finding ways to manipulate these data sets to achieve new insights.
These are the technical skills that are now at the forefront of teaching, enabling the workforce to understand the basic concepts that now underline data analysis, whilst additionally having space to breath new ideas from a place of understanding what is possible, what is not, and what may soon be possible. Within organisations, a greater focus has turned to ensure that their workforce is knowledgeable in these new areas.
This presents a possible solution outside of the workplace. Enabling workers found out of a job due to automation and AI could be given the opportunity to enrol in educational establishments that can retrain them with new skills that are better suited to jobs of the future. There are many significant staff shortages within the UK job market, such as that in nursing where there are over 40,000 vacant positions which all greatly require filling. Making these jobs not only accessible but also desirable is essential, and it should not be overlooked that many of these jobs are not considered to be desirable due to their difficulty, the lack of a work/life balance and inadequate financial remuneration.
As previously highlighted, training for many of these new skills also requires significant financial outlay, often only available to those without income or savings through the cost of acquiring debt, an issue already common amongst the lower classes. Facilitating easier access to education and retraining without the financial burden will go some way to solving the issue.
Financing the Future
A potential solution to financing the issues presented by job-displacement would be the introduction of Universal Basic Income (UBI), a widely discussed but not-yet-widely implemented solution that would seek to simplify the welfare state by paying each citizen an amount of money each week/month that would be enough for that individual to home and feed themselves. The theory is that this would reduce homelessness, take the pressure off job-hunting, allow individuals the access education, support the gig economy, allow for a better work/life balance and an improvement to human rights with none left destitute.
In the US, Andrew Yang, who lost to Joe Biden in the race for the Democrats Presidential nomination, talked openly about his idea for a “Freedom Dividend”, wherein all US citizens would receive $1000 a month, no questions asked. His idea is in direct response to the diminishing jobs within a huge US manufacturing workforce.
However, UBI is not without criticism. Encouraging laziness and reducing the incentives to work are common, whilst a greater issue resides in the financing of a programme that would inevitably cost more to the state. Additionally, although it would mean a diminishment of means-testing welfare, something often considered to be demeaning, it would not necessarily account for those whose reliance on the state costs greater than a sum that would be received through UBI.
Furthermore, it may not be of greater benefit to those already supported by the welfare state, who may not see a huge increase to their income, whereas those in middle-income jobs would benefit greatly, therefore not necessarily reducing poverty/inequality as intended. For these issues to be negated the amount of UBI received would need to be greatly increased, at a greater cost to the treasury. Yang’s solution in the US was to raise the money through taxes on the companies that have most greatly benefited from the use of automation and AI.
The elephant in the world
This is a global problem, a problem that we are becoming increasingly aware of and soon will be too great to ignore. The concept of UBI is a solution that could work but may create its own issues. More worryingly is there seems to be a lack of alternatives being discussed. The elephant is getting bigger, and soon he won’t have a chair to sit on.