Why This Grandmother Worries About Automation and Employment

The impact of automation on employment is finally making it into the news. It’s not a trending topic yet, but at least it’s no longer the “elephant in the room”. Although books like The End of Work (Rifkin) appeared as early as 2002, and online blogs have been warning about advanced technology for at least 5 years,  automation and it’s effect on work has so far avoided the limelight.

In 2013, Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, wrote about the rapid advances in computer technology—blaming recent sluggish employment growth on improved industrial automation, from the use of robotics on the factory floor to automated translation services.
“Even more ominous for workers,” he said, “the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.”

We read him, but we didn’t bite

Today, the voices are growing louder. Respected researchers like those at The Brookfield Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Toronto’s Ryerson University, say that the effects of automation have previously have been underestimated. No longer restricting the dangers to routine, manual jobs, this report warns:

“More than 40 per cent of the Canadian workforce is at high risk of being replaced by technology and computers in the next two decades….Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and advanced robotics now means that automation is moving into cognitive, non-routine tasks and occupations, such as driving and conducting job interviews.”

The report says the top five occupations—in terms of number of people employed in them— facing a high risk of automation are:
1. Retail salesperson.
2. Administrative assistant.
3. Food counter attendant.
4. Cashier.
5. Transport truck driver.

But wait. There’s (a lot) more.

Its becoming apparent that even they are far behind in their thinking. With the escalation of research into artificial intelligence moving at warp speed, scientists and writers are realizing that automation is cutting an ever wider swath into the job market, with job losses happening faster, and going deeper.

Referencing the Harvard Business Review, David Gershgom, author of the blog Quartz.com, wrote this post in January of this year, saying:

“Most of the attention around automation focuses on how factory robots and self-driving cars may fundamentally change our workforce, potentially eliminating millions of jobs. But AI that can handle knowledge-based, white-collar work are also becoming increasingly competent. One Japanese insurance company, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, is reportedly replacing 34 human insurance claim workers with “IBM Watson Explorer,” starting by January 2017.”

A step in the right direction

So this week, when Canada’s 2017 Federal Budget came down in Parliament, I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard that automation was included. I was pleased to hear in a newscast on CBC this week, that there will be increased spending on training of people who will be displaced by artificial intelligence. 1.2 Billion in fact—money that will be devoted to “skills and innovation”. Details have yet to be released, but I’m looking forward to hearing more in the weeks and months ahead.

Usually doubtful that governments can do effective long range planning, I was encouraged by this budgetary measure, and heartened to find more Canadian commentary on automation and jobs. A March 19 Canadian Press article, quoting Sunil Johal, a policy director with the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto says more:

“Many of the trends that may concern us about technology and automation in terms of what their impacts could be on workers are already happening and that’s, I think, the missing piece here. People are projecting this into, well, in 10 years we may be in a difficult situation. The reality is many Canadians are already ill-served by government policies when it comes to skills training, when it comes to employment insurance, when it comes to the broader suite of public services to support Canadians. Depending on the methodology used, the Canadian economy could lose between 1.5 million and 7.5 million jobs in the coming years due to automation.”

Here’s a link to a March 22 CBC interview with Johal.

I know automation is here to stay—and it will benefit mankind in ways we can’t foresee. We will eventually move beyond the problems of this transitory period. The first steps Canada has taken to address it are a start. But more needs to be done, not “down the road”, but right now. Here’s a list to start with:

Raise public awareness.
Step up the role of educational institutions.
Set up safety measures such as basic income, for workers in transition.

I’m a Grandmother and a Grand-aunt, and I care about future generations—and hope they can, just as we did,  find purpose and prosperity in their productive years.

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28 Responses to Why This Grandmother Worries About Automation and Employment

  1. Diane,
    Thanks for raising awareness with this post about automation. It sounds like Canadian authorities are doing something about it – not only studying it, but coming up with ways to retrain part of the workforce. I think our schools are the answer. They have created two generations of computer-savvy young people who are now in jobs that require computer knowledge. Every child must now learn all he or she can about computers and automation. The high schools of the future will undoubtedly be computer-driven and might even reach children at home instead of in large school buildings.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      My post about MOOCs (a few weeks back) addressed how students can learn at home—that system of education is already here, and will be expanding in use. Governments need to step right up to re-train all ages, in order to have a population that adapts well during this transition. Thanks, Rin!

  2. Good for Canada! Here in the U.S., Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the administration isn’t worried about AI replacing human jobs. It’s not even on the their radar screen because it’s at least 50-100 years away. They do live in an alternative universe. 🙁

  3. so what will these defunct people be trained in? how long will it before their re-training is automated!

    schools should be the first thing to go…there is no point in teaching traditional subjects if most that will manned by a robot in the future. and schools on the whole do not teach the mechanics of living/life.

    they spend far too much time with examining people on knowledge of what will be basically useless…having just gone through the University system as a rather older person, I have so much trivail/useless information in my archival brain…none of it useful as it turned out for employment!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I hear you, Cathy! Educators used to consider learning as a way to exercise the brain—thank goodness we know more now!I like your point that the re-training itself will be done by robots…how ironic!

  4. Janis says:

    This is a huge issue that most people are ignoring (including, sadly enough, the U.S. Treasury Secretary). Nations full of idle, unemployed people does not bode well for well-functioning societies. I fear that over the next four years, the United States will waste precious time that we could have used addressing this problem.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Idle, unemployed people who have no hope and no direction can result in a roiling, dangerous population. This cannot happen…it would be repeating the mistakes of The Great Depression. I say we need to address this problem, when it arrives, on two major fronts, re-training and a basic income. Unemployment as a result of automation will come, but it need not be a disaster.

  5. Dave says:

    I am surprised at how many people here are still thinking that education is the key to having jobs in the future. You dont get it. We are on the brink of the 3rd industrial revolution and the end of the capitalist economy. This story says 40% in 20 years, that is not the end of it. Scientists have extrapolated that it will be near 80% within 50 years. Education is going to serve an entirely different purpose in the future. Those that want to go into the sciences will do so out of a desire to do good for humanity and all other “occupations” will be centered around improving the quality of life for mankind and the planet as a whole. We are officially at the end of the fossil fuel economy now as it is no longer viable in the global energy markets. Solar energy is now substantially cheaper than all fossil fuels and wind is on the same curve. Free energy is going to be a reality within 20 years and all of the future infrastructure is already being designed to take advantage of the new energy paradigm. Our whole global economy has been built on fossil fuels and now its a 15 trillion dollar debt bomb worth of stranded assets. Rifkin’s vision of a Zero Marginal Cost society is soon to become a reality and most people are still dismissing it as Science fiction

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Dave, just so you know, I read Zero Marginal Cost Society a few months ago, so I’m not totally out to lunch. I admire Rifkin’s book and agree with a great deal of what he says. The Third Industrial Revolution he talks about will happen, but not right away. Until then, we need to take sane, possibly conventional steps to survive and adapt. As I say in my article, I’m a Grandmother, and my first concern is for the young people I care about. Re-training and a basic income will keep people afloat while change occurs. And no, I don’t think Rifkin’s ideas are science fiction.

  6. Many of us are furthering job loss and have been for many years without realizing it. We get our money from ATMs and use the self-check aisle in the supermarkets. I am guilty but it was brought to my attention by a friend who makes it a practice to bypass self-check even if it means standing on line for a real life cashier.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I think that automation has gone beyond the point of no return, corporations, the entire economic system is too invested in it. Tech wizards around the world are hyped up about inventing the ‘next big thing.’ We can’t contain it, so we need to think about how to manage it, and how to look after the people who are being (and will be) displaced. That will require awareness, training, and a basic income for all.

  7. Lynne Spreen says:

    I’m depressed. The only job I can think of that they can’t automate is plumber. Although maybe when the toilet gets plugged up, the robot will come in, remove it, throw it away, and plunk down a new one.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I like your take on things, Lynne! I’m not depressed over this, I’m just concerned that people talk about it and become so aware of every angle of it, that eventually some solutions will surface. I have tremendous faith in humans to be creative and resourceful. Hope that doesn’t mean I’m sticking my head in the sand!

  8. Still the Lucky Few says:

    This comment was written by Rummuser, but wouldn’t post. So I’m pasting it under my name, Still The Lucky Few. Thanks, Rummuser. It is too good to let it drop off!

    “Man today is confronted with the most fundamental choice; not that between Capitalism or Communism, but that between robotism (of both the capitalist and the communist variety), or Humanistic Communitarian Socialism. Most facts seem to indicate that he is choosing robotism, and that means, in the long run, insanity and destruction. But all these facts are not strong enough to destroy faith in man’s reason, good will and sanity. As long as we can think of other alternatives, we are not lost; as long as we can consult together and plan together, we can hope. But, indeed, the shadows are lengthening; the voices of insanity are becoming louder. We are in reach of achieving a state of humanity which corresponds to the vision of our great teachers; yet we are in danger of the destruction of all civilization, or of robotization. A small tribe was told thousands of years ago: “I put before you life and death, blessing and curse — and you chose life.” This is our choice too.”

    Erich Fromme in The Sane Society.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      This is in reply to Rummuser, (above comment, which wouldn’t post):

      I have been reading The Zero Marginal Cost Society (Jeremy Rifkin). It alludes to a Third Industrial Revolution, which will result in a Cooperative Commons-an entirely different system and if (when) it happens, will be tremendously positive and exciting.
      If you go back a bit (Dave, March 26), you can read his very interesting comment about this. Thank you to all for this engaging discussion!

  9. Aunt Beulah says:

    Once again, Diane, thanks for educating me about a subject I’ve only begun to be aware of and think about in a superficial way during the last year. Your last paragraph reflects my wish for future generations as well, so I will continue to follow this topic and to hope our government will be as forward-thinking as yours, though my hopes aren’t high.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Aunt Beulah, I’m planning to write about artificial intelligence and some of its ramifications over the next few weeks. I’m glad you enjoyed this!

  10. Rummuser says:

    I have just posted a link to an interesting youtube video and it got posted! You seem to have worked some magic!!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Thanks, Rummuser. My tech person came by, and solved a few riddles! Please keep posting you comments. I value them!

  11. Joared says:

    We in the U.S. have been wasting so many years on matters other than those we need to be focusing on as you discuss here. If we can get out from under this dark cloud we’re living under, salvage the integrity of our nation and preserve our democratic republic, hopefully we’ll not be too far behind. Of course, their are concerns in the rest of the world and what’s happening with Great Britain and Europe.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Joared, I feel guilty sometimes that I have focused too much on serious issues, worrying readers about dangers in several areas. My next blog (tomorrow morning) will address the concerns we are having in these challenging political times. hoping to share with you some of the reasons for our stress, and how we can cope. Thank you for reading, and for your insightful comments.

    • joared says:

      Oops….there, not their.

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