The rise of the machines?

10th of December 2018
The rise of the machines?

Robots will put us all out of a job as the march towards automation in our workplaces continues apace, we were told. Scary stuff. But now we are beginning to hear that we may have less to fear from machines than the doomsayers would have us believe, writes Hartley Milner.

We all love watching Charlie Chaplain’s cane-swinging tramp shuffling from one calamitous encounter to the next. In the Chaplain classic Modern Times, we see him as a factory worker on a fast-moving assembly line and coming to grief with hilarious results.

The iconic little misfit’s struggle coming to terms with his place in an increasingly mechanised world during the Great Depression of the 1930s is eerily prescient, foreseeing many concerns we have about the human cost of automation in our troubled world today.

And the economic and social impact could be far-reaching and extremely disruptive, according to a new report by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD has warned its members that the failure to prepare workers for an automation revolution will leave 66 million people at risk of being replaced by machines in coming years.

The study finds that 14 per cent of all jobs across the 32 countries studied are highly automatable, while a further 32 per cent are likely to experience significant changes to the way they are carried out. Automation is most likely to affect jobs in manufacturing and agriculture, although a number of service sectors, such as postal and courier services, land transport and food services are also highly vulnerable.

Low-skilled people and youth are among those most at risk, with the jobs most likely to go being in low-skill sectors such as food preparation, cleaning and labouring. The report points to evidence that automation may also be putting downward pressure on wages and
working hours.

Some countries are far more vulnerable than others to the rise of the machine, the report observes. Significant differences exist across countries… 33 per cent of all jobs in Slovakia are highly automatable, while this is only the case with six per cent in Norway. More generally, jobs in Anglo-Saxon, Nordic countries and the Netherlands are less automatable than those in eastern and southern European countries, Germany, Chile and Japan. Britain is identified as one of the countries that would be less affected by automation, but even so one in 10 jobs would be at risk and one in four could experience significant change.

Education will be vital in reducing the impacts of automation, the report continues. Workers in fully automatable jobs are currently more than three times less likely to have participated in on-the-job training, over a 12-month period, than workers in non-automatable jobs. Those most at risk are also less likely to participate in formal education or distance learning. The report flags up the need to help young people obtain work experience while studying, and highlights the importance of retraining and social protection for those at risk of seeing their job restructured or significantly downsized.

Rising employment

Having said all that, the thinktank finds reasons why the future may not be jobless and employment may continue to rise: “While the prospect that every second job in the OECD may be impacted by automation is daunting, it is only a technical possibility. The actual implementation of full or partial job automation will depend on a range of other factors such as technology penetration and adoption, the cost of human labour relative to the new technologies and the social preferences for automating certain tasks. Take-up of new technologies lags behind the technical feasibility and some innovations are never widely implemented. For example, even if care services for the elderly could be automated, people may continue to attach a value to those tasks being performed by humans.

“Moreover, even if technology makes certain jobs redundant, it also creates new ones. Historical examples include the introduction of automatic telling machines (ATMs), which performed routine tasks handled by human bank tellers but freed up their time for more productive tasks such as non-routine marketing and individualised customer services, ultimately leading to an increase in employment numbers. Similarly, jobs are likely to be created for the development, implementation, maintenance and use of new technology.”

A still more upbeat assessment is contained in a survey of company executives representing 15 million workers in 20 different countries carried out by the World Economic Forum. The WEF suggests that as many as 133 million jobs could be created globally with the help of rapid technological advances in workplaces over the next decade, compared with 75 million jobs that could be displaced.

The report points out that new technologies have the capacity to both disrupt and create new ways of working, similar to previous periods of economic history such as the Industrial Revolution when the advent of steam power and then electricity helped spur the creation of new jobs and the development of the middle class.

Total task-hours

By 2022, for tasks such as information and data processing, machines will for the first time surpass humans in working the number of task-hours required, the WEF predicts. Even in functions like reasoning and decision-making, the most human of functions at present, machines will take over 28 per cent of total task-hours, compared to 19 per cent today. However, the majority of companies believe that this automation will be offset by growth in new roles.

“If managed wisely, these transformations could lead to a new age of good work, good jobs and improved quality of life for all, but if managed poorly they pose the risk of widening skills gaps, greater inequality and broader polarization,” Klaus Schwab, chairman of the WEF, writes in the report.

However, Schwab also stresses that employment gains from technology were not a foregone conclusion and would require greater investment in training and education to help workers adapt. There are urgent challenges for reskilling workers and safety nets are required to protect those most at risk. “This is a call to action to governments, businesses, educators and individuals alike to take advantage of a rapidly closing window to create a new future of good work for all,” he adds.

Workers confident

In Britain, a two-year commission has been launched by trade unions and the Fabian Society to identify urgent actions that government, employers and trade unions need to take in support of workers as technology impacts on jobs over the next decade. Alongside this, the commission published the findings of an in-depth online survey of 1,000 workers’ views and expectations about technological change.

The study finds that 73 per cent of workers are confident they would be able to change and update their skills if their job is affected. After learning about how technological changes will impact the workplace, 53 per cent said they are optimistic about their future working life and job prospects. However, a significant minority remain anxious about the impact of automation over the next 10 years, with 37 per cent – the equivalent of 10 million people – fearing their job will change for the worse and 23 per cent (representing six million people) having concerns that their current job may no longer be needed.

MP Yvette Cooper, who chairs the commission, said: “It’s vital that action is taken now to make sure technology creates new better jobs and that all workers benefit from new technology. We have to make sure that automation and the digital revolution don’t widen inequality and that everyone gets the help and support they need to get on…we need to ensure that automation is an opportunity and not a threat for British workers.”


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