We all seem fascinated about the potential doomsday scenarios that artificial intelligence (AI) and the digital revolution may have on employment. I often debate with myself: are these real concerns or just exaggerated media claims? After all, bad news sells more than good…
A quick Google search returns numerous reports and studies on how millions of people are expected to lose their jobs in the future because robots will take over. According to the most quoted study, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization, by Carl Frey and Michael Osborn, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. Similarly, Bill Gates predicted, "Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses ... it's progressing. ... Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs; particularly at the lower end of skill sets, 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don't think people have that in their mental model."
Things become particularly interesting when specific numbers are assigned to these predictions. Beyond the 47% of US jobs at risk, I also came across: 40% of Australian, 35% of German jobs, 30% of British, 21% of Japanese jobs, and so on will not be around by 2035. These are big numbers that—if they materialize—will fundamentally change the structure of our societies.
But wait … are we forgetting something? Is all this buzz and doom taking into account only one part of the equation?
Certainly there will be jobs that will be fully automated and eventually go extinct and probably the vast majority of jobs will be impacted in some way. This has always been the case throughout history. But what about the new jobs that will be created? And what about the business funds that will be freed up by digitization and inevitably directed to other activities? I read in a recent study that due to the rise of transport apps, in the future we are less likely to own a car. Makes sense. In the US, this will on average free up $5,000 of income per person each year. To what goods and services will this income be redirected and what new jobs will arise as a result?
I am 39 years old, and people my age find it fascinating that 20-year-olds don’t know what cassette tapes are. After all, we grew up making mix tapes to share with friends. But even we, confused X-ennials with our analog childhood and digital adult lives, when asked “what is a computer?” will describe the piece of hardware, desktop or laptop that is so important in our day-to-day lives. None of us remembers that a “computer” was actually a job before it was a piece of hardware. A “chief computer” in the early 1950s earned roughly USD 50,000 per year in today’s dollars. Yet, by 1973 this job went completely extinct and has been almost erased from the collective memory. And, don’t even get me started on bowling pinsetters who in the 1940s were replaced by AMF automated pin setting machines. If we go further back, say at the time of the 1st Industrial Revolution, we will see that the steam engine and later electricity impacted well over 47% of jobs in much less than a decade after their introduction to the mainstream economy. So, you see, our situation today with AI and robots is not new. The process of creative disruption is quite constant throughout human history. It just expresses itself in different ways.
What do historical patterns tell us? In every cycle we see a short-term impact quickly followed by a mid- to long-term impact. In the short term, there are immediate negative effects on specific jobs. Human computer jobs were extinct by 1973, but the computer industry created millions and millions of new jobs people could not even imagine in 1946 when ENIAC, the first computer, was installed. And this pattern is consistent throughout time. In the mid- to long-term, new technologies create many more and more interesting jobs than they displace.
The future of employment looks bright with jobs that will be more meaningful, more intellectually stimulating and more humane.
While most media prefer to reproduce the worst possible doomsday scenario, I choose to be optimistic. The future of employment looks bright with jobs that will be more meaningful, more intellectually stimulating, and more humane. The key question is: are we ready, as active members of the employment market, to embrace the new opportunities arising every day? Having the “right” attitude to things will be much more important than having the “right” technical skills.