The Future of Automation: Are Robots Coming for Our Jobs?

Potential job loss due to automation has been the central issue of Andrew Yang’s campaign. Are his concerns legitimate or misguided?

Happy Friday morning everyone! I hope you all had a great week doing whatever it is you do. Today’s article is a little dystopian; I want to explore whether or not we should be worried about machines taking all of our jobs.

The last time I walked into a McDonald’s restaurant, I didn’t talk to anyone. I walked in, pressed a few buttons on the touch-screen kiosk, waited a few minutes, then grabbed my order from the counter and left. McDonald’s isn’t just getting rid of humans to save money on labor costs, either; customers tend to buy more from kiosks than they do from workers at the counter. On the flip side, a poll conducted by MSN found that 78% of folks are less likely to go into a restaurant that has self-service kiosks.

The refusal to go into restaurants that offer self-service kiosks sounds an awful lot like the initial refusal to use self-checkout machines at the grocery store, which means it probably won’t last and any resistance is futile. Does anyone out there still refuse to go through self-checkout at the grocery store? Anyone?

It’s unclear how much of a risk automation poses to society right now, but it’s obvious that it could be a big issue in the future if we don’t do anything about it. One Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, has built his entire campaign around tackling the issue of automation. He believes that if we don’t act now we could soon face Great Depression-level unemployment and a societal meltdown. As part of the solution to the problem, Yang wants to give a freedom dividend of $12,000 per year to every American adult over age 18.

How big of an issue is automation?

Automation doesn’t feel like a big issue right now. It seems like we have much more pressing problems to deal with, such as climate change. Tackling automation and taking on the robots now would mean getting out in front of a problem before it exists, and when have we ever done that? It feels much safer to sit on the sidelines and wait until automation can no longer be stopped before trying to get involved.

McKinsey & Company, Pete Buttigieg’s alma mater, said in a 2017 report that as many as one-third of American jobs could disappear due to automation by 2030. If they’re right, in just 10 short years 33% of the population might be replaced by machines. That is an alarming statistic and one that requires action immediately, not sometime in the next few decades. 

Who is in danger of losing their job?

I’m not worried about losing my job to a robot anytime soon, but even wealth management is becoming automated through robo-advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront. Investing through an app is a fraction of the cost of going through a traditional financial advisor. Wealthfront charges 0.25% of assets under management (AUM), and a traditional financial advisor charges around 1.00% to 1.50%. (Although a human advisor can provide comprehensive financial planning that an app cannot. At least not yet…) 

Those hardest hit by job losses due to automation will almost certainly be blue-collar unskilled workers (this is not to say they have no skills; unskilled labor is the term used to describe jobs that require no special skills or training). Over 3 million Americans work as truck drivers, and another 4.6 million work in fast food. Overall, about 45% of jobs are susceptible to automation. Restaurants like McDonald’s have already begun getting rid of human workers in favor of machines, and self-driving cars and trucks are expected to take over the roads by 2030

Some of those workers replaced by machines will land on their feet. Humans are resilient, if nothing else. Many, though, may have nowhere else to go. In a world where we can buy groceries, food, and almost anything available on Amazon with no human interaction, where do those displaced workers end up? It’s hard to imagine a future where we end up creating as many jobs as we replace. Robots certainly will create some new jobs, though. Someone has to be in charge of designing, manufacturing, and deploying our new metal overlords. 

The human element

I can be just about as dystopian as it gets, but even I admit that in some industries we’ll always need or want a human touch. It’s hard to ever imagine a society with automated police officers (at least without a robot uprising), and jobs that require a certain level of skill and human interaction (teachers and lawyers, for example) are unlikely to be replaced by robots anytime soon. In some workplaces, though, humans are not required. Amazon warehouses almost seem like they’re made for machines instead of humans; workers need to skip bathroom breaks to keep their jobs, and the temperatures inside some warehouses aren’t hospitable to humans. Robots don’t need bathroom breaks (that I know of) and could conceivably operate at temperatures much colder or warmer than humans can. If I worked in an Amazon warehouse, I would be shocked if I wasn’t eventually replaced by a robot.

What’s the solution?

Some politicians, like Andrew Yang, believe that a universal basic income will eventually be required for many Americans to get by. Others, like Bernie Sanders, want to enact a federal jobs guarantee to ensure every American has a stable job. Most politicians, though, don’t seem to be concerned about automation at all. I think we need to get in out in front of this problem early. Ideally before one-third of the country loses their job.

We need a plan for displaced workers. This means re-training workers to do new jobs and creating new opportunities for those who end up being replaced by machines. Even then, I’m not sure if it will be enough. The robots are assembling and I don’t know if we can stop them.

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