‘Assumption is the mother of all mess-ups,’ a former colleague in recruitment once told me (or words to that effect…). And no, just because he’s a ‘former colleague’ doesn’t mean he’s been replaced by a robot.
Thirty-four Japanese insurance workers are being replaced by robots, though, according to the BBC article linked below which goes on to highlight a study by the World Economic Forum predicting millions of job losses within just the next five years.
Indeed, whilst technological progress in medicine, communication and entertainment (to name but a few industries) has supported some optimism about the future of humanity there remains widely held fears (growing at an alarming rate) that technology will also be humanity’s undoing. What started decades ago as concerns that more powerful weapons would lead to deadlier (and perhaps apocalyptic) wars now stretches into economics and peace-time society; robots are going to take all our jobs and ‘capital’ is going to destroy ‘capitalism', say the scholars.
Have we learned nothing from human history, especially modern history? If anything, 2016 in particular should have proven the Socratic paradox that ‘the more we know, the more we know that we know nothing’. Indeed, the pace of technological change is now so fast that new phrases, products and even entire industries are appearing that would have been unimaginable to any economist forecasting this decade back in 2009/2010. How would any predictions made then have accounted for Vaping, Netflix, or Uber? How could anyone have factored into their calculations the exponential improvement in the prostate cancer survival rate, regime change in Myanmar, or the results of an as-yet-unannounced-and-frankly-unthinkable referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union?
Frankly I would pay less attention to the thoughts of the World Economic Forum, and more to the lessons of Magician and Libertarian thinker Penn Jillette: ‘There are two facts of human history; 1) Things are always getting better, 2) People always think they’re getting worse’.
After all, had the Blacksmiths Unions of the early 20th century been given the power to do so they would have outlawed the motorcar. My point here is that for every piece of ‘job-destroying technology’ there is a new job-creating industry being born which can never be properly foreseen. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics Milton Friedman accurately pointed out that most economic fallacies derive from the ‘zero-sum fallacy’ – the idea that if one party gains another party must always lose, when in fact provided all parties consent to a change all must be gaining (Otherwise, said party would not consent). The entire IT industry as we know it today would have been unthinkable to even the most prophetic sci-fi writers fifty years ago (We don’t all seem to wear identical silver clothing, either…), just as the number of Application Developers working today would have been unfathomable to leading technology economists writing in 2006.
Fiat aired their iconic ‘Handbuilt by Robots’ advert as far back as 1979, and yet still today it is the human touch, the hand-made clothing, the recruiter or shop assistant who really gets to know you which makes the difference between a transaction and an experience.
And it’s increasingly the case that consumers (or customers, or clients, for that matter…) are seeking to consume fewer high-quality goods and services and turning their backs on disposable ‘pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap’ mentalities. How many more people are employed in the booming craft-beer industry per pint than in cheap-quality ‘Big Lager’? What of the backlash against automated messages in favour of ‘On-shore call-centres’?
Automation is going to change the world as we know it, of that there can be no doubt. But change has been a factor of human life for as long as human life itself has existed. Employment and recruitment will change in line to reflect this, but the very fact that we, humans (Consumers) don’t want human jobs to disappear is the very reason that suppliers will continue to employ humans to serve their customers – it just might be in roles or sectors which don’t exist yet. As a headhunter my focus isn’t on the five million jobs about to be lost, it’s on the six, seven, or more million jobs that are going to spring up from who-knows-where.
I’m excited about helping to fill a few of them, too…
A study by the World Economic Forum predicted last year that the rise of robots and AI will result in a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in 15 leading countries. The 15 economies covered by the survey account for approximately 65% of the world's total workforce.