Will robots take our jobs?

By Brigit Helms, General Manager at the Multilateral Investment Fund, member of the IDB Group

A recent McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) study on the future of work indicates that 50 percent of the tasks conducted by today’s global workers could be automated using technology that already exists today. What does this mean for the average person? Should we be afraid of being forced to bow to our robotic overlords? What kinds of jobs will be available in the future for our children? How can we prepare them for the challenges ahead? And what is the public policy response?

These are the kinds of questions that were addressed last Friday at the MGI/New York University Digital Future of Work Summit.

With the advent of artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, and big data, who isn’t feeling a bit uneasy about the implications for the job market? Or more importantly, the implications for their jobs?

According to the experts, it will take some time – between 8 and 28 years according to McKinsey – for tasks and jobs to be fully automated. This is because large corporates are slow to change business models and processes to accommodate large scale automation, according to Jeffrey Wald of workmarket. This gives us some time to think about what will happen to truck drivers and teachers.

Jobs vs work. Some, like Kelly Services’ Carl Camden, argue that it no longer makes sense to talk about jobs at all, we should be talking about work. Between 2005 and 2015, nearly all new jobs were created in the contingent, or independent work sector. Increasingly, young people are opting for work in the gig economy, where they may have multiple projects with multiple clients. They want to be their own boss, work flexible hours, and select meaningful projects. When we think about the gig economy and independent workers, we tend to focus on these young professionals, just out of university, engineers and business majors.

Inequality. But there are two sides to the new world of work. Many people work on a contract basis involuntarily. They might prefer a proper “job” with benefits but the only option is short-term or contractual. This group of people are struggling to make ends meet, juggling several jobs just to pay the bills.

However, the gig economy and the advent of technology are not necessarily all bad news for lower skilled people. In fact, some technology will require less qualified workers to accompany it, rather than those that are more qualified. For instance, in the past a successful taxi driver required significant knowledge of the geography of his/her territory. Today, a driver needs only to push the button on the GPS machine to do the job. As Michael Chui of McKinsey indicated, we should be more alarmed about not automating fast enough, given our ageing populations we will need all workers and all robots to sustain equitable growth.

Rethinking education. The demands of technology and the future of work require us to think much differently about how to prepare our youth. Our education systems are not matching the needs of tomorrow’s – or even today’s – workforce. The “one and done” university education will no longer suffice, according to Mona Mourshad of McKinsey. Rather, as adults we should consume “doses” of education every time we change jobs, which will likely be several times throughout our lifetimes.

Some cities are embracing the new economy and integrating it into their education curriculum. For instance, New York City has implemented a program of computer science for all, where all public school kids are exposed to computer science. Others, however, question a perceived over-emphasis on STEM education (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and math). As Albert Wenger of Union Square Ventures stated, education should not be just about what job you’re going to get but what person you want to become.

Meanwhile, job training programs need to be completely rethought. We need to think about training in terms of weeks, not years. But according to Mona Mourshed at McKinsey, most companies don’t calculate ROI for training programs, and incentives are not clear for investing in new economy skills.

Policy implications. Is it time to start acting on key policy issues like universal income and portable benefits? If most work will be independent and in the gig economy going forward, this means benefits can no longer be tied to traditional jobs and traditional employee-employer relationships. According to Sara Horowitz at the Freelancers Union, we need policy disruption to find solutions for the middle class – not just the high and low-ends of the spectrum (she calls it the middle layer of the three layer cake).

Many argue that we need to enter a new social compact that redefines relationships between governments, companies, and individuals. As part of that compact we should support and incentivize new kinds of work that will provide meaning and add value to society. Ann Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation talked about the circular economy (tear down strip malls and turn them into something else), the craft economy (beer), and the care economy (investing in others) as great examples of where opportunities will arise in the future.

The bottom line seems to be that while the future of work is evolving quickly, there is still time to make sure future generations can work with cool technology rather than be displaced by it.

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