Robots Why technology is both a threat and opportunity to your job


As technological change speeds up, there is a growing fear of being left behind. Should more be done to address the challenges imposed by disruptive tech?

The big tech leaders celebrate a future of robotics and automation, a kind of utopia for both man and machine. During the World Economic Forum 2019, the fourth industrial revolution remained a hot topic of debate. What does this mean for the common worker? According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, 72% of Americans are worried about robots replacing them at work. Why is it that some people embrace the forthcoming automation stage, while others feel so apprehensive?

“They have every reason to have fears about the future,” says Nobel Laureate James Heckman. Having worked on skill formation in adult training programs in the 1990s, he saw firsthand that it’s not easy for people to adjust when their job skills are no longer needed. “What we are finding is that people are not equipped to the extent they could be and should be to deal with these changing technological patterns. They will naturally blame globalization, robots, technology, and they will flock to somebody who promises them a solution.”

Robots “People are not equipped to the extent they … should be to deal with changing technological patterns.” — Heckman

Even if you have a relatively future-proof job, the question could remain whether you’ll be provided a sufficient salary. There are some economists who believe that it is the combination of technological progress and global trade that has led directly to the stagnation of lower and middle-class incomes, while the top incomes are growing rapidly. “Those distributional effects are now front and center in lots of analyses but also in political processes,” says Michael Spence. The Nobel Laureate thinks it’s time to reassess the definition of economic well-being.

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“Growth patterns in which there is extreme inequality don’t work,” says the expert on economic development. “They don’t work because there’s economic waste, but more importantly, they don’t work because of some failure of political and social cohesion.” His solution within his own field and the political sphere is simple: Stop looking at growth based on GDP alone. 

“Growth is best thought of as a multidimensional thing, and it needs to be tracked on that basis,” he says. “It includes opportunity, health and a bunch of other things.”

Robots “Growth patterns in which there is extreme inequality don’t work.” — Spence

If we want to generate not only more growth but better shared growth, opportunity is a keyword. 

“The last thing you want to do is create groups of people who are outside society,” says Heckman. “We want to engage people. We have to be a little more creative, but I think we want to make a society that includes everybody.” 

Christopher Pissarides also emphasizes how important it will be to create a more positive narrative about technological advances and how it will improve everyday life. “I’m very excited about new technologies,” he says. “They give you the potential to create other types of jobs.”

Robots “Governments should encourage the ownership of new technologies.” — Pissarides

Political leaders should be encouraged to share the positive aspects of new technologies, and more importantly, they need to make sure that no one is left behind. Realizing that growth and inclusion go hand-in-hand is a crucial part of this. 

“What governments can do is to, first of all, make it possible for companies to adopt the new technology, keep a flexible labor market, and negotiate with social partners in a way that makes it positive for all of them,” says Pissarides. “In other words, it should encourage the ownership of new technologies.”

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Pissarides also believes that new policies will be most effective regarding inequality. “Government needs to step in and provide good social support, provide subsidized health care, and help reeducate people with new technologies,” he says. “Lifelong learning is important. The focus of government policy should be at lower incomes, to help those who will be hurt.” 

In a World of uncertainty, it’s no surprise that many people feel technology is making it worse. Still, we can’t forget that a constant strive for progress has brought us a long way. With efficient government policies and a more aspirational narrative, more people will see technology as an opportunity rather than a threat. 

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