First there was outsourcing. Then came offshoring. Now several industries are rushing to move jobs to robots. Each wave affects employees, usually not for the better, As the robot wave picks up speed, the next group feels the pain and so on. The trend is not a positive one for people who work for a living. Here are the four waves to date.
- Company employees lost their jobs to computerization and software programs.
- Company employees lost their jobs to contractors and outsourcing firms.
- American workers lost their jobs to cheaper employees in low-wage countries.
- Human beings are losing their jobs to manufacturing robots, kiosks, job-specific software, ATMs, and, now, customer service robots.
The Wall Street Journal reported the latter trend in “Robots on Track to Bump Humans from Call-Center Jobs” by Trefor Moss. It seems the Indian and Philippine call-center operations that offshored jobs from American workers are now themselves being replaced by automation.
Currently this is affecting just “low-level” jobs but don’t get complacent. Mr. Trefor reports that within five years, robots will be “smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems.”
Like customer service wasn’t difficult enough already. Robotization will increase the frustration of human beings who want to be able to talk through an issue with someone who has insight and can make intuitive connections, someone with real judgment. Someone who doesn’t offer a limited number of options, none of which address your problem.
Job Security for Humans
In the same issue of @WSJ, Lauren Weber provides “Some Tips on Job Security in the Robot Age.” Ms. Weber interviews Tom Davenport who, with Julia Kirby, wrote a new book called “Only Humans Need Apply” and who gives some insight into how knowledge workers can survive the ongoing wave of automation.
He mentions the upcoming automation of financial advisors. Wow. Somehow I always thought money management and investing was a “knowledge work” job that required the kind of acuity, creativity, foresight, and responsiveness that comes packaged in the human brain. (Everyone who wants their money managed by a robot after Brexit, raise your hand!). I suppose this would work, though, if computers were running the world economy and could thus take all the volatility out of economic forecasting and financial management.
In the meantime, here are some things that robots will never do. Oh, we could program them to do it but they would never have a passion or need to:
Order a restaurant meal
- Get a pedicure or a haircut
- Buy a new dress or a suit
- Create a new and innovative product
- Find a market need and devise a way to fill it
- Run a marathon
- Fall in love
- Get married
- Start a new household
- Purchase new furniture and appliances
- Have a child
- Watch a TV program
- Go sailing, kayaking, hiking, camping, hunting or fishing
- Play golf, tennis, baseball, football, soccer, basketball, or hockey
- Stop and smell the roses
If you make products that service any of those markets, think twice about automating production. Unless human beings have jobs with real paychecks, they won’t be able to afford any of those things. Productivity will improve but the consumer base will dry up.
No Paycheck, No Customer
Meanwhile, Wendy’s and other fast-food restaurants are reacting to the drive for a $15 minimum wage by replacing human workers with self-order kiosks this year. Other fast-food restaurants are following suit and next week McDonald’s opens an outlet in Phoenix that is completely staffed by robots, including in the kitchen. (I see a malfunction sending burgers flying up in the air and fries cascading onto the floor.)
The people who were applying for jobs at these restaurants won’t be buying much of anything, however, because they won’t have paychecks. Instead they’ll be collecting unemployment and welfare. As Mr. Davenport says, “We believe job loss won’t be catastrophic but there will be some on the margins, and it’s a nasty experience for the people who do lose their jobs. They tend to lose them for the rest of their lives.”
We’re rushing headlong toward Skynet, smugly assuming that our job will never be taken over by a robot. After all, what machine could replace little old me? Perhaps CareerCast should pay more attention to this in one of its surveys about best jobs, best-paying jobs, and jobs with the best growth potential.
Because unemployed people don’t’ consume much. And, as I have said before, robots buy nothing.
My guess here is that all three of us have experienced or at least witnessed the blunt employment displacement scenario at one time or another. People will always continue to be displaced, and what might help all three of us here is if we saw more compassionate handling with better benefits than we have when this must happen.
What’s the alternative when no one wants “buggy whips” anymore, or can’t competitively sustain itself in an industry any longer? Have our government subsidize the industry? We all know we could never afford doing this on any continuous, larger scale.
The other side of this, that I’m not sure any of you have mentioned, is that no one really WANTS these lower level jobs. If robots displace a McDonalds work force, is that all really a bad thing? Most people can’t live on that level of income, and if we pay them $15-20/hour to do it, then we’ll all end up paying $10 or more for a Big Mac. Nobody wants that either, right?
My view, is we need to have these folks get educated in some manner, perhaps short term grants to train them in other areas where jobs are growing, instead of bemoaning that the “robots are coming”. We all already know that they are, and have been, so what’s the big deal? Given that, check out one of my previous companies:
The thrust at Rethink is that no one in their right mind wants boring repetitive jobs – Let a cheap robot do it. Then help these folks learn to do something better within the same company. I’ve seen this happen myself many times. So relax why don’t you…?
I think I see a blog post here, Mike. Have to think about this.
I guess I don’t see it all that way. Although you make good and interesting points as always, there will always be evolution of products and the people that make and serve them over time, like the old “buggy whip” story.
Sure, we have a technology that can replace McDonalds employees – are your surprised? Do you know many people that really want or like those jobs anyway? I don’t. So what should those good folks do? Figure out another way that their skills and abilities can be productively applied in our changing world – just like you and I both have done many times!
Although I agree that many people have been unfairly or at least rudely displaced, we have to be careful about mixing what we see, with other root causes (like deep recessions, etc.), and those that survive well are usually those that have been trained or somehow learned to adapt more quickly (Re: “Future Shock”?), as well as those fortunate enough to have gotten or figured out how to get a solid education to help keep them at the forefront of new job creation trends. Not an easy task, but doable. It’s not fun being layed-off, I know because it’s happened to me more than I care to admit. Nonetheless, my eventual success was largely due to how I figured out how my skills and abilities could be adapted to other opportunities – buggy whips be damned.
Ever rapid changes in our world, with unruly market forces (like expecting cheap hamburgers from McDonalds), will always be with us, and lamenting this would be a fools errand in my view.
And although there’s both good and bad with the “robots are coming scenario” the issue is not so much about job displacement, but rather what new jobs and roles will emerge as a result and how will we fill them going forward. Someone has to envision these things, assess market opportunities, build and launch them into our global markets, train people on how to use them, and service them over time.
Getting an education and learning how to adapt are the tools I used and think we all need to acquire and apply to get by – but hasn’t this always been the case?
I look forward to your opinion of tomorrow’s post, Mike.
Yup. Robots don’t buy anything. And unemployed / marginally employed people don’t buy anything but barest necessities.
Here are three essays I wrote – which you may have seen – on robots / AI for your consideration.