Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if a news headline is about automation…or a horror film: “Job-Stealing Robot Apocalypse May be Worse Than Previously Thought,” proclaimed Vanity Fair, or “RISE OF THE ROBOTS Earth to be plunged into ‘meaningless dystopia’, scientist warns,” screamed the Express.co.uk.
Those stories, and many more with less dramatic headlines, contribute to the sense that automation is a threat to society. They feed the conventional thinking that the only effect of automation is job loss, ignoring the job-creating effect of increased productivity.
It would follow, then, that the people most directly threatened by automation – those in low income jobs – would be the most concerned about their future.
According to findings by the Harvard Business Review, workers are surprisingly excited about the opportunities automation is creating. It’s their bosses, the study finds, that are scared for the workers, often underestimating the workers’ adaptability and potential to change.
The study covered 11,000 workers from 11 countries – Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States – as well as 6,500 employers in 8 of those countries (Indonesia, Spain, and Sweden were not included). All of the workers were earning less than the average income in their countries and did not have more than 2 years of post-secondary education.
The results revealed a gap between how workers and employers viewed prospects for the future.
Workers, it turns out, see advantages in technological progress:
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that workers fear that technology will make their jobs obsolete. But our survey revealed that to be a misconception. A majority of the workers felt that advances such as automation and artificial intelligence would have a positive impact on their future. In fact, they felt that way about two-thirds of the forces. What concerned them most were the forces that might allow other workers—temporary, freelance, outsourced—to take their jobs.
When asked why they had a positive outlook, workers most commonly cited two reasons: the prospect of better wages and the prospect of more interesting and meaningful jobs. Both automation and technology, they felt, heralded opportunity on those fronts—by contributing to the emergence of more-flexible and self-directed forms of work, by creating alternative ways to earn income, and by making it possible to avoid tasks that were “dirty, dangerous, or dull.”
Employers, however, were far more concerned – and pessimistic – about their workers’ outlook:
Predictably, business leaders feel anxious as they struggle to marshal and mobilize the workforce of tomorrow. In a climate of perpetual disruption, how can they find and hire employees who have the skills their companies need? And what should they do with people whose skills have become obsolete? The CEO of one multinational company told us he was so tormented by that last question that he had to seek counsel from his priest.
A number of recent reports on the future of work appear to confirm the workers’ optimism, both about the level of threat they face from automation and the impact it will have on the way work will be done in the future.
In its report, The Future of Work 2018, The World Economic Forum looked at trends impacting how work will be done in the coming years. One of the trends is a “net positive outlook for jobs.”
One set of estimates indicates that 75 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 133 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms.
While the report cautions against drawing too sharp a conclusion about this estimate, it is consistent with others who predict that jobs will grow as a result of increased output from automation.
The Brookings Institute, for example, noted: “Machine substitution for labor improves productivity and quality and reduces the cost of goods and services. This may—though not always, and not forever—have the impact of increasing employment in these same sectors.”
Both reports also predict that the future workplace will be a combination of machines and humans, with automation taking charge of mundane tasks, leaving workers to focus on tasks that are more valuable and more interesting.
“Machines substitute for tasks, not jobs,” the Brookings Report states. “A job is a collection of tasks. Some of those tasks are best done by humans, others by machines.”
One job humans and machines can share tasks is human resources. Payroll, for example, is best done by machines. The reason is simple – machines are better at following rules than people are. Once rules are automated for the various parts of the payroll process – calculating tax from different countries, accounting for benefits, etc… – payroll is performed quickly and easily, and with no human error. An automated system is also capable of unifying data from across the globe into a single report, making all of the information an employer needs easy to find.
Automating payroll relieves human resource workers of a difficult, time consuming, and often frustrating task with far-reaching consequences when mistakes are made. The time saved can be used for one of the many other human resource responsibilities, such as training employees in new skills or building a more cohesive environment. Those tasks are better suited for people, not machines.
From self-driving cars to customer service chatbots, technology is changing how work is done in virtually every field. By embracing the changes, we can speed the process of increased productivity. That’s what opens doors to innovation, and new, more valuable roles for people.
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