Why Workplace Automation Is Not as Scary as We Thought

August 8, 2017

Why Automation Is Not as Scary as We Thought

The Robots Are Coming—Run for Your Jobs!

Through automation, the world is changing at a pace that is causing major disruptions in the workforce. Every day another article warns that robots are replacing humans. Artificial intelligence (AI) will perform cognitive tasks humans used to perform. Robots accomplish many physical tasks more efficiently and safely than people. If employees are no longer needed to think or to do, will any of us have a job?

The Robotics Industries Association estimates there are already more than 265,000 robots deployed at U.S. factories. IDC predicts that 30% of the world’s leading companies will have a chief robotics officer by 2019.

Two-thirds of Americans believe robots will replace most human work soon, yet 80% believe their jobs will be unaffected. Both beliefs are untrue. Automation will replace many jobs, but it will also create the jobs of the future. Most employees will feel the impact of automation, and many will have to retrain for new jobs.

Disruption Is Not Doom, It’s Just Different

Technology empowers workers but it can also make their jobs more vulnerable. For example, half of businesses now permit flexible work arrangements—something that was unheard of just 20 years ago and is made possible now by high-speed internet, mobile devices, and cloud computing. On the other hand, the economy is shifting from full-time employment to a “gig economy” where freelancers work without the security of benefits or a guaranteed paycheck. By 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that 40% of workers will be independent contractors in the gig economy. There will still be roughly the same number of workers; they’ll just be working differently.

Boston University economist James Bessen examined bank jobs before and after the introduction of ATMs. Rather than eliminating jobs, banks hired more employees after installing ATMs. Bessen explained, “the ATM allowed banks to operate branch offices at lower cost; this prompted them to open many more branches … offsetting the erstwhile loss in teller jobs.”

To put job losses in perspective, there are 1.86 billion workers in the 15 most developed nations in the world, and according to the WEF, there will be about 5.1 million net job losses to automation by 2020. That’s not too many for powerful economies to deal with, yet it will be incredibly disruptive for those who do lose jobs. Many millions more employees will need to retrain for different types of jobs.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution—Another Season of Change

One way to know that robots and automation won’t doom the human race is to review history. We are at the precipice of the fourth industrial revolution. Humankind has already survived three of these periods of major disruption and economic dislocation. Our standard of living as a species is higher than ever now.

  1. First Industrial Revolution: Mechanization, including water power and steam engines, enabled manufacturing to move out of houses and into factories. Banking expanded and agriculture shrank as machines like tractors meant more people could leave the farm for the city.
  2. Second Industrial Revolution: The invention of the assembly line enabled mass production to take place on an unprecedented scale. One employee could produce more products in a day than ever before.
  3. Third Industrial Revolution: Computing and automation revolutionized every industry on the planet. Factories are robotic. Doctors can look inside patients without surgery. Accountants complete complex financial reports in minutes.
  4. Fourth Industrial Revolution: We’re at the early stages, but developments in AI, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, biotechnology, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things will continue to change the way we live, work, and socialize. From smart factories and smart farms, to the rise of the sharing economy and the gig economy, and dozens of trends that haven’t emerged yet, we will have to adapt to a lot of change. It won’t spell doom—it will just be a different world.

Adapt to Megatrends by Embracing Technology

Organizations will use people, machines, money and space differently in the future. For example, many companies are reducing their real estate footprint for the new reality of mobile workers. Likewise, the gig economy will spur the acceleration of leased co-working spaces for contractors. Asure Software’s Hoteling solution can help your organization efficiently schedule shared work and collaboration spaces for the flexible, mobile workers of the future .