robot worker

I, Robot Worker

We all fear that our jobs will eventually be automated. But cheer up! Where one job dies, another rises from the ashes

automizationImagine a world where writers have vanished. Editorial departments, the places where the magic of newspaper and magazine writing used to happen, are run by computers relying on the eternal knowledge of the web. With access to big data and statistics, there is no longer any need for human minds.

Sound like something out of 1984 or Brave New World? In reality, computers already write some sports and business articles. In a blind test of material published by Thomson Reuters, some of the computer-assisted pieces proved to be even more readable than articles written by humans.

Across a range of industries, automation and technological changes are transforming the job market. The World Economic Forum has estimated that, by 2020, five million jobs will be lost as a result of these developments. It’s understandable, then, that people fear these changes. A recent study shows that two thirds of Americans expect robots and computers to do much of the work that humans do now.

However, this might not be all bad. Tristan Horx, a trend researcher at the Zukunftsinstitut (Future Institute) in Vienna, believes the fear that technology will steal your job is based on a false premise: “Jobs have been becoming obsolete since we, as a social species, started developing and creating new jobs,” he says. “Humanity has recovered from animals replacing manual labor, and subsequently, will recover from it becoming digital and automated.”

The new jobs in practice

Horx is not the only one trying to put the current phase of development into some kind of historical context. Johannes Kopf, Chairman of Austria’s Agency for Public Employment, recently told the daily Der Standard that the technological changes of recent decades have had a huge impact on the job market, but did not cause a reduction in the actual number of jobs.

Instead, he suggests that millions of jobs will be lost in Europe in the near future, “because these jobs will cease to exist,” but they will be replaced by other jobs in a natural process of improvement.

© Alice Achterhof / Unsplash // Graphics: Karin Dreher // Source: ”Future of Jobs report”, WEF

To illustrate his point, just think of all the new fields of work that have sprung into life in recent decades – artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology, to name but a few. Also, only 10 short years ago, we could not have imagined job titles like social media manager, cloud service developer, vlogger, Airbnb host or Uber driver.

As part of the emergence of these new fields, some traditional work environments are being developed and improved, others are becoming obsolete. “In the long term, all industries will profit from modernization trends such as automation, digitization and the internet of things,” says futurologist Horx, putting a positive spin on it.

There is consensus among experts that high levels of education will be fundamental to making the best of these developments. “When your job becomes digital, it would be better to be on the controlling side rather than the jobless side,” explains Horx. “Education is the key to staying on top of the curve.”

Johannes Kopf is also insistent about the importance of constant learning: “We don’t know exactly what will become of the future job market or which kinds of qualifications will lead us into the future, but what we do know is that a qualified or trained brain learns more effectively and is quicker to adapt to changes,” he says.

A similar sentiment was expressed by American writer Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Just imagine how much unlearning and relearning is going on right now as a result of developments like 3-D printing and virtual reality. They are overturning traditional working concepts in many industries, from medicine to mass manufacturing, from entertainment to education.

© “The Fourth industrial revolution”, WEF

Go with the flow

What all these fields have in common is an increased reliance on the development of soft skills. The World Economic Forum’s research suggests the ability to solve complex problems will be the most sought-after attribute in the near future. Critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence all rate highly, the Forum suggests.

However, in today’s insecure economic environment, job cuts at a factory are still grieved over even as the flourishing of the creative economy is met with skepticism. As U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump currently demonstrates, it’s an easy play to deny that changes in the labor market are natural for healthy economies, and rage against foreigners for “stealing manufacturing jobs.”

Elaborate tax incentive schemes for multinationals, a field in which many EU countries excel, seem more likely to prolong the pain than help forge a productive future. The result is often wasted tax money and a region that is left deserted and depressed. Bochum in Germany is a case in point: in 2008, telecom giant Nokia closed down a factory despite having pocketed huge subsidies in the years before.

In the end, just as a grieving person must eventually accept their loss, societies will need to embrace these changes with confidence, good education and courage.

Your job may die, but there will be plenty of new, exciting ones out there to take its place.

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