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  • 12.09.15

Coping With The Age Of Automation: Relax, Retrain, And Redistribute

We need a plan for how to adapt the workforce after we give all the jobs to robots. Maybe it’s more simple than it seems.

With new artificially intelligent machines appearing every day (like, say, this scary security robot) a lot of people are concerned about the impact on employment. If these machines, as well as doing manual work, can now think, sense and see, it seems only a matter of time before they replace workers, such are the cost advantages.

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Several recent research reports have predicted a tsunami of job losses. McKinsey says 45% of paid activities could be automated using “currently demonstrated technologies.” Forrester Research predicts 9.1 million jobs lost in 10 years.

The big question is this: What happens when people lose their jobs to computers? Will they get another job to replace it? Or, will computers ultimately suck up that role as well?

Economists disagree. Many point to technological revolutions of the past, which, while displacing workers, also made their lives easier. Since 1750, gains in technology have generally helped job numbers and raised productivity, while also benefiting society overall. The automation revolution, they argue, shouldn’t be much different.

Others think we’re approaching a step-change–a moment when fundamental parts of lives will be given over to machines, and when jobs won’t necessarily come back in another form. Here is how Andrew Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, put it in a speech recently:

Technology may be set to change jobs and wages more fundamentally than in the past. Job displacement and creation may come thicker and faster than ever previously. “Hollowing out” may become more pervasive. And gaps between those with and without skills, or with and without jobs, may widen as never before.

Haldane says “this time may be different” in regards to the replaceability of the jobs, and the virtuous circle of technology producing wide social gains. In the speech, delivered to a British trade union conference, he said that 80 million U.S. jobs are at risk of automation, based on research into what parts of jobs can be automated. What’s more, they’re mostly jobs at the bottom end of the wage scale. “Those most at risk from automation tend, on average, to have the lowest wage. In other words, technology could act like a regressive income tax on the unskilled. It could further widen income disparities,” he says.

Helpfully, Haldane also offers some ideas for what we might do as a society to cope with the automation threat to employment. He suggests we “relax, retrain, and redistribute.”

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By relaxing, he means getting used to having less work to do. In the past, work has been a source of non-monetary fulfillment for people, as well as about paying the bills. If there’s less work to do, we should make better use of our free time for other things. “Life among the leisure classes may be less attractive than it superficially sounds,” he says. “[But] maybe attitudes will change as we grow accustomed to life in leisure class.”

By retraining, he means changing what we teach in schools to reflect what robots can and can’t do. Robots are great at reading, writing, and math, so we should develop kids’ non-cognitive skills: for example, their ability to make friends and to empathize. “The high skill-high pay jobs of the future may involve skills better measured by [emotional quotients, EQ] than IQs, by jobs creating social as much as financial value. Yet our education system, at present, has a strongly cognitive slant,” Haldane says.

And by redistributing, he means finding ways to “reallocate income from rich to poor, from owners to workers.” That could include ideas like a universal basic income where every citizen is guaranteed a minimum living level (though Haldane doesn’t endorse it explicitly). If the job market can no longer provide for people, society and government may need to step in and help in other ways.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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