This is rapidly becoming perhaps the most relevant question for the average employee in the 21st century. As machines – now affectionately and increasingly referred to as “robots” – become more capable and intelligent, you have to have a strategy for when robots take your job.
It’s no longer a theoretical question either. Much of the reason why the job market – particularly the market for full-time, benefited positions that pay a living wage – has not returned to pre-recessionary levels is due to technological change. Entire departments have been either seriously reduced or completely eliminated by computer software programs. I saw it happen first hand in the mortgage industry.
Now it appears that the same thing is happening with robots. However where computer software programs deal primarily with the automation of data, robots actually have the capability to perform human-like tasks, and that puts a lot of very specific jobs in jeopardy.
And though the cost of acquiring such robots seems prohibitively high, the elimination of employees represents future cash flow to the employer. This means not just the salaries that won’t have to be paid, but also the cost of benefits, various employment-related insurance types, and matching payroll taxes. That’s to say nothing of the elimination of potential employee lawsuits against the employer and complying with government hiring and employment mandates.
If a single robot that costs $1 million can replace five highly skilled employees that cost $200,000 a year each to keep on staff, the employer will recover the initial investment within the first year. And with the cost of technology steadily declining, that relationship is virtually doomed to becoming even more unfavorable for employees.
How Many and What Kinds of Jobs Will Be Replaced by Robots?
A series of new reports and articles have been appearing in the media in the past couple of years predicting that the robot assault on jobs is real, and that we need to be prepared. As an example, last year Business Insider published an article with an ominous warning, Experts predict robots will take over 30% of our jobs by 2025 — and white-collar jobs aren’t immune.
That’s less than 10 years away, so it isn’t one of those far off predictions that won’t take place until after we’ve departed from the world. According to the article, the job carnage will be virtually across the board, but is extending to include white collar jobs. The article lists “Financial and sports reporters, online marketers, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and financial analysts are already in danger of being replaced by robots.” That’s a wide assortment of job classifications that most of us might even think of as irreplaceable.
The moral of the story: No job is safe! Maybe not even us humble bloggers.
What could make this substantially worse on a grand scale is normalcy bias. Wikipedia describes normalcy bias as:
“…a mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects. This may result in situations where people fail to adequately prepare…The assumption that…since a disaster never has occurred, it never will occur. It can result in the inability of people to cope with a disaster once it occurs. People with a normalcy bias have difficulties reacting to something they have not experienced before (and) to interpret warnings in the most optimistic way possible, seizing on any ambiguities to infer a less serious situation.”
This is a bit irreverent, but I’ve always been intrigued by a comment from the 1931 Dracula movie, “The power of the vampire is that you will not believe.”
What we don’t believe, we don’t react to or prepare for. We can be selective in this regard too. Should we decide that a potential outcome or disaster is too disruptive to our existence, we simply choose not to believe that it can happen.
That’s already taking place.
Some Say it Won’t Be THAT Bad…
As is common in mainstream media interpretations of even the most debilitating problems, the Business Insider article I cited above turns tail at one point, as if to cushion the disclosure of a disturbing reality (seldom does anyone in the mainstream media feel comfortable making a bold statement or disclosure and actually sticking to it – I guess that’s what they refer to as balance):
“While one camp of experts predict that several unlucky Americans will be pushed out of work in the near future, others argue that this increase in computing prowess will simply eliminate old jobs and introduce new ones, resulting in a net-zero effect — or even an increase in jobs. New technology means new products and services, they argue, as we saw during the Industrial Revolution.”
That’s an extremely optimistic assumption, and a common one among technology optimists. But I think that recent experience makes the opposite case. The computer/internet boom of the 1980s and 1990s did create more jobs than it destroyed. But that was due mostly to the number of employees needed to implement the physical components of that technological revolution.
But once the apparatus was firmly in place, the number of jobs in general, but also full-time, benefited jobs that pay a living wage, have been on the retreat since the onset of the dotcom bust in the early 2000s.
I also think that drawing parallels with the Industrial Revolution completely misses the mark. The technological innovations that brought about that revolution largely automated production, and made certain economic activities doable and profitable that hadn’t been before.
The harnessing of electricity is an excellent example. Electricity was a clear win for the economy, and one that would create many thousands jobs. The internal combustion engine was another. It eliminated horses and buggies, but it created millions of jobs on assembly lines, in repair shops, and in the steel, rubber and oil refining industries.
The robot revolution however is very specifically geared to the elimination of human employment. There would be no need for robots if that was not the case. Here in the 21st century, human employees have become too great a liability. This is because the costs of employing people have skyrocketed as a result of government mandates, and also because of potential legal liability, either from employee lawsuits or injuries on the job.
Where the Industrial Revolution created the assembly line, robotics are removing the need for the people who once ran them. That’s fundamentally different from what happened during the Industrial Revolution.
No doubt some new jobs will be created as a result of the increasing use of robots. But it’s much more likely that far more jobs will be eliminated as a result of them. After all, that’s the basic function of robots.
It’s Best to be Prepared for the Worst
On the optimists-versus-pessimists front, I’ve always been of the prepare for the worst and hope for the best mindset. I think that’s the best course of action in the face of increasing use of robots.
The evidence of a negative impact on employment is all around. Think about what ATM machines have done to banking jobs, particularly tellers. Or point of sale processors with retail employees and gas station attendants – we’re increasingly becoming a nation of self service providers. And how many people use TV repairman or even computer repair services today? The list goes on and on.
Technology has already had a negative effect on employment, but the assault from robotics will be even more job specific. It’s best to be prepared for the worst.
Plan on a Career Where the Human Touch is Central to the Job
Maybe I’m guilty of a normalcy bias here myself, but I’m of the opinion that jobs that require a high level of human interaction are likely to be relatively safe from the robot onslaught. Those jobs are likely to involve strong customer service, sales, troubleshooting, repairs and creative capacities. By contrast, the more mechanical a job is, the more likely is to be replaced by a robot.
Sales/customer service. Any job that includes (or can be modified to include) increasing sales/revenues to the organization should be a safe bet. That should include both sales and marketing capacities, or the ability to expand income channels. It should also include relatively common positions, such as restaurant waitstaff. That’s a position that actually incorporates both sales and customer service.
Troubleshooting. Every company or department I’ve ever worked in always had its resident troubleshooter(s). Sometimes I’ve been the person. That’s the one in the organization that everyone turns to when things start falling apart. Even with robots in the organization, things will fall apart periodically. Human troubleshooters will be needed when that happens. It’s part of the human condition, and it won’t be replaced by robots.
Repairs. Robots may be gaining in intelligence, but they’re still machines, and all machines need to be repaired sooner or later. That of course also extends to auto repair, home repair, and repair of more technical equipment, such as oil rigs and aircraft.
Creative capacities. This involves any capacity in which you are creating something that did not exist previously. While we can think of this easily enough in the arts, like painting and writing, there are plenty of economic examples. Those include creating advertising copy, designing new products, creating websites, developing marketing plans, and improving organizational efficiencies. And that’s just a short list.
If you even suspect that the job you currently hold could be replaced by robots, you should find a way to incorporate one or more of the above skills into your position. And if you can’t, you may want to develop a new career in those capacities. According to the experts, we have less than 10 years to make that happen.
Plan for Self-Employment
When I left the mortgage business in 2008 – as the economy was mired in the Great Recession – I had to carefully consider my next career move. My mortgage experience did not translate into anything solid, particularly in a declining economy. I also had to consider long-term survivability in whatever career I chose to go into.
After long and deep consideration, that included very frequent discussions with friends and others in different occupations, I realized self-employment was the only serious course of action for me. I reached a point where self-employment was probably less risky than getting a job.
That’s not a crazy idea either. Almost any job you can think of today is subject to the whim of an employer (or their accounting department!), or to changes in technology, the economy, government regulation, legal outcomes, or even global developments. As a self-employed person, I couldn’t guarantee myself a certain income level, but I could virtually guarantee myself an occupation and an income at some level.
I chose blogging and freelance blog writing for my business, and I’ve never regretted it or looked back. And an interesting thing that I found out along the way is that when you are self-employed, new opportunities have a way of coming across your path. If you’re open to them, and you are prepared to adjust to whatever the requirements are, there are an incredible number of opportunities to make income from being self-employed.
I’m not saying that everybody should be a freelance blog writer. But I am saying that the growing prospects that robots may take your job creates an even greater incentive to consider self-employment of some sort. Like the computer/internet revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, not all of us are going to be able to find a stable job in an era that is increasingly dominated by new machines – in this case robots.
We have to inventory our skills, consider what new skills we might develop, and how we can translate those into some form of self-employment.
It’s a theme that I’ve brought up time and again on OutOfYourRut.com, but only because the need to be self-employed has only grown in relevance since the first time I wrote it. Self-employment is fast becoming the safest economic bet in this new, developing, and increasingly unstable economy. When robots take your job, it will be even more true.
Do you feel at all threatened in your job at the prospect of robot technology? If so, what are you doing to adjust your career strategy to that outcome?