Why Robots Won't Take Our Jobs

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They are the top questions I am asked regularly: what's the future of employment? Is it true that robots will take all of our jobs?

Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty with the future of work. But that’s all we know, and that has always been the case. Anything beyond fact is merely gossip spoken by the dark knights of clickbait.

What we do know is this: humanity has managed multiple disruptive changes to the nature of work within the last twenty thousand years, and we will be able to handle another one just fine.

What each of these transitions have shown us is that the forces for change were bigger than just devices, and even larger than a form of technology for that matter. 

In fact, the largest scale changes were when the change agent domesticated humans' behavior, instead of humans domesticating the change agent

Put another way, large scale change - the size of major disruption people equate to automation and robotics - historically has only happened when tectonic shifts to human functioning were impacted by the new phenomenon.

These are serious changes, of which the automation age is not one. 

As an example, the agricultural revolution wasn’t about humans moving to jobs on the farm, it was the shift away from being individualized hunter-gatherers and into a collective society. It was the first time we coordinated as a species and showcased the social abilities of humans (justifying our extinguishing of the neanderthals). 

The domestication of wheat was a symbol for this period due to the rise of the farmer. But upon looking closer, you see that humans didn’t domesticate wheat - wheat domesticated humans. Yuval Noah Harari details this in the book Sapiens - he shows us that wheat changed humans - our diets, our land, our working relationships (usually for the worse, but that’s another article).

There were other key transitions as well:

The scientific revolution wasn’t about humans making bombs or medicine, it was about answering lingering doubts in our minds. This period was when humans finally succumbed to our ignorance about what we didn’t know about how the world and human body works (look it up - the latin root word for science is literally “ignorance”). 

The industrial revolution wasn’t about humans moving to jobs in factories, it was about the rise of mass consumption and embrace of capitalism. 

The knowledge revolution wasn’t about humans moving to jobs in corporations, it was about the raise of data processing capabilities. Computers may have been the largest leap frog in history - society is still trying to make sense of (and contain) their impact on human life.

This is where we find ourselves today.

At each juncture above there was tremendous change over many decades and hundreds of years, the scale of which many modern day “futurists" equate to AI and Robots. They are mistaken.

Machines have been replacing the capabilities of humans for over a century, showing us that any amount of large-scale, pervasive employment impact on society has already happened or is happening so gradually that we don’t notice it. Any change in our lifetimes or the next will just be a shifting of jobs and an adapting of responsibilities.

It just so happens that McKinsey agrees.

The McKinsey Global Institute recently released their own assessment: within the next 15 years, only 15% of the global workforce may need to switch jobs. By 2030, 8% to 9% of labor demand will be in new types of occupations.

This doesn’t sound so doomsday - the operative word being: switch, not lost.

For context, we have to understand that it took the world 600 years to figure out what to do with gun powder, and half a century to apply Einstein’s formula E = MC^2. More recently, it’s been 30 years since the inception of blockchain technology and it's still misunderstood by 99% of the population (and not utilized in really any capacity).

Point is, societal change is slow, and change that affects our society to the extent that modern-day doomsayers predict of AI and Robots is a long way off, if ever.

This leaves plenty of time for humans to figure out what to do next.

Humans are an immensely resourceful species - we've managed the shift from finite resources to renewable resources, and from archaic materials to modern materials - we will figure it out. Families may slowly begin to realize that they are the last generation of a certain industry, but then a new industry will become available (just ask the magazine publishers and print journalists).

Beyond the aforementioned factors, there are other forces - notably attrition due to age - that will create opportunities. Over the next several years, there will be 500 million people over 65+ on this planet - this presents a massive opportunity for the subsequent generations to take over roles previously inhabited by these older generations.  

Instead of panicking and rushing into a reinvention, ride the ripples. Don’t tread water waiting for the tsunami that isn’t going to come.

The real question you should be answering is: how do you begin to angle yourself towards the coming decade or two of changes? They are what will have the largest impact on your life.