The coronavirus pandemic has devastated organizations of all sizes across multiple industries. The last 12 months’ events have also accelerated the digitalization of business and what many see as ‘job-destroying’ automation. However, if we look back at our history, this is not the first time that technology has affected the employment landscape, and it won’t be the last.
The arrival of the industrial revolution in the 19th century may have displaced existing jobs, but it also opened up many more possibilities and opportunities. On the subject of human creativity and innovation, it was automaker Henry Ford that famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Although it is tempting to look back at the past through rose tinted lenses of nostalgia, employees have always had to evolve and adapt to new workplace technologies.
By the twentieth century, the arrival of computers and later the Internet would threaten to displace millions of jobs again. It was thought that typists, messengers, administrative staff, and bank clerks would be replaced by emails, word processors, and ATMs. What actually happened was a dramatic increase in productivity that boosted demand and increased profits. All of which led to the creation of new job roles that replaced the old ones.
It’s easy to forget that 25 years ago, roles such as data scientist, SEO analyst, cloud architect, virtual assistant, social media manager, mobile app designer or developer did not exist. History has taught us that emerging tech creates more jobs than it destroys. But this time around, the speed of technological change is a subject of increasing concern across the employment landscape.
Automation is creating new jobs, but not for the displaced workers
In its Future of Jobs Report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicted that automation would remove 85 million global jobs by 2025. The good news is that automation is expected to create 97 million new roles, but the bad news is that most displaced workers will lack the skills required for these new jobs.
Ensuring that nobody gets left behind will require a dramatic reskilling program to help displaced workers secure new positions in AI, machine learning, process automation, and data science.
There is also a fear that the shift to remote working will tempt businesses to hire employees in regions with much lower labour costs. Automation combined with the COVID-19 recession could create a double disruption. The biggest problem is that the speed of technological change is now outpacing the window of opportunity to reskill and upskill displaced workers.
We can expect the skills gap to widen, which will create an urgent need to invest in the reskilling and upskilling of employees across every industry globally. Many argue that we need to find a way to temporarily slow the speed of automation so that we can prepare society for collaborating with machines, rather than competing against them.
Should the robot that takes your job pay taxes?
In 2017, Bill Gates suggested a radical idea of taxing organizations deploying robotics at scale to help fund jobs where humans were traditionally required. The European parliament quickly rejected the concept of a robot tax on businesses to fund and retrain workers put out of a job by machines or automation. But here in 2021, the world and economic climate are very different.
Predictably, tax and tech are increasingly being mentioned in the same sentence as economists warn of the implications caused by mass unemployment. Governments traditionally rely on funding through the taxable income of the human workforce. When the jobs disappear, so does its funding.
As automation replaces workers, at the very least, we should remove tax incentives for businesses that favour robots over human employees.
However, taxing all robots is not as easy as a headline might suggest. Asking authorities to define precisely what AI or a robot is likely to cause a regulatory and legal nightmare in a world of self-service supermarket checkouts and vending machines. But jobs being displaced by robots, AI, and automation is a challenge that needs to be addressed.
Ensuring technology works for us
Unfortunately, it is too late to slow down AI and automation in business. We are already beginning to see the effects of how technology is leading to mass job displacement. These are problems that governments, organizations, and employees must unite to explore ways in which everyone can seize opportunities as a wide range of new job roles emerge.
It’s easy to forget that we have seen humans working with technology to bring to life augmented and virtual realities in the last ten years. Digital assistants have entered our homes and helped create an entire industry of Alexa skill builders.
Esports game coaches, drone video editors, TikTok marketers, cryptocurrency developers, influencers, bloggers, and podcasters are all reshaping what work means. But we need to ensure that nobody gets left behind.
We can change society for the better by ensuring that technology works for everyone, regardless of their background, or employment industry. Our history has taught us that attempting to hold back the progression of technology and innovation will always fail. Maybe we simply need to work together and ensure that technology works for us, rather than the other way round.