Why automation won’t mean fewer jobs – but could mean fewer good jobs

A recent report on the future of work finds it is unlikely technology will result in fewer jobs and widespread unemployment but warns the quality of work available may decline without good checks and balances.

The quality of work available to our future workforce may come under threat from advances in technology even if the pure number of available jobs does not suffer from the precipitous decline many predict.

A recent US-oriented report from private research university MIT, The Work of the Future: Shaping Technology and Institutions, has found technology is unlikely to result in widespread human replacement by ‘robots’.

While widely-reported advances in AI, machine learning and robotics were slowly advancing into the human realm, the effects are not resulting in most cases with the one-for-one replacement of human workers.

“Alarmist rhetoric animates today’s public conversation about technology and work,” the MIT report says. “All jobs will be affected, directly or indirectly, by these technologies. The question that concerns us is what do these job changes imply for employment prospects, earnings, and career trajectories of workers with different skills and resources, and how do we manage this process to improve work opportunities broadly?”

Why there won’t be fewer jobs

The MIT report, prepared by its Task Force on the Work of the Future, said there are three ways automation changes human work: ‘substitution’, ‘complementarity’ and ‘new task creation’. Of these it is substitution – or replacing humans – that is usually popularly recognised and leads to what MIT calls ‘undue pessimism’.

However, MIT says that substitution – while a real and present risk, as illustrated by historical examples of technological disruption – accounted for ‘less than half the story’ when it came to workforce dynamics, and that in reality, substitution by machines rarely resulted in one-for-one human replacement.

Instead, it was frequently the case that automation “complements the cognitive and creative capabilities of workers”. MIT gives examples of architects who, in becoming fluent in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, are now able to design more complex buildings faster than they can with a paper drawing.

Automation also results in new task creation. “In the 21st century, as computers and software have displaced workers performing repetitive tasks, they have created new opportunities in novel, cognitively intensive work such as designing, programming, and maintaining sophisticated machines, analysing data, and many others.”

With other economic and demographic forces at play – including an aging workforce that will require the replacement of workers even in those industries that are in the process of being automated – the quantity of available work is unlikely to be a challenge in the foreseeable future. More likely, the problem will be quality.

Why there might be fewer good jobs 

The core concern of MIT (which is based on US economic trends, but is affecting Australia as well) is that technology and automation will continue a trend towards ‘hollowing out’ the middle of our future workforce, leading to quality, high paid work for the well educated at the top and poor, low-paid work at the bottom.

Technology does this by displacing those ‘middle-skill’ workers that perform routine codifiable tasks, such as sales, office and administrative support in business through to production, craft and repair occupations.

“Unlike the era of equitable growth that preceded it, the digital era has catalysed polarisation—that is the simultaneous growth of high-education, high-wage, and low-education, low-wage jobs at the expense of middle-skill jobs. This lopsided growth has concentrated rewards among the most skilled and highly-educated workers while devaluing much of the non-specialised work that remains. This imbalance contributes to the vast divergence of earnings between college and non-college educated workers in recent decades.”

MIT acknowledges that US market characteristics like the embrace of shareholder capitalism and fiscal policies that encourage capital investment over-investment in things like labour and skills accentuate this trend.

Education and training as part of the solution 

MIT’s report says we should invest in job quality, not job quantity. “Contrary to the conventional narrative in which automation renders jobs increasingly scarce, we anticipate that, due to slowing labour force growth rates, rising ratios of retirees to workers, and increasingly restrictive immigration policies, over the next two decades industrialised countries will be grappling with more job openings than able-bodied adults to fill them.”

It argues for broad-based approaches that ensure labour market regulations, collective bargaining regimes, financial markets, public investments, and tax and transfer policies all ‘play an important role’ in fostering the ability of workers to gain better quality work and reap more of the rewards of technological change.

Central to this will be the role of education and training providers. Because automation is likely to negatively impact those without a four-year college degree in the US more than those with one, MIT says the education and training initiatives that should be supported are those that are primarily available through Community Colleges, work-based learning initiatives and online learning – similar learning to Australia’s VET system.

In short, the future contains a lot of opportunity educators as society manages automation-related challenges.

 “New and emerging technologies will have a profound effect on the work of the future and will create new opportunities for economic growth. Whether that growth translates to higher living standards, better working conditions, greater economic security, and improved health and longevity in the US and elsewhere depends on institutions of governance, public investments, education, law, and public and private leadership.”