Encore Post: Are the Robots Going to Steal Our Jobs?

(Originally posted: September 10, 2015)

In their provocative book, “Race Against the Machine,” Harvard economists Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have taken on another critical issue.  Is the development of robotic, automation and other “artificial intelligence” materially different from other technology revolutions in the past?  They observe that in the past, disruptive technologies (steam engine, mass production, electricity, automobiles, air flight, computers) upended certain occupations, but ultimately created economic growth, so humans could find other, more productive work in other venues.

But with today’s rapidly emerging automation, robotics, and one day – artificial intelligence — technology is becoming so smart and so much more capable to of doing things previously only a human being could do. They wonder if this means society won’t ultimately need as many human beings to do the basic work that is needed in an advanced economy.  We could have a very advanced, high-tech world, that is very productive, but with many people sitting on the sidelines.

This raises fascinating dilemmas for the question of career exploration and career planning.  How do we help young people think about and plan for an economy where there may not be nearly as many jobs as we would’ve had in the past, as robots and IT automation are you able to do more and more on our behalf?

From an economic viewpoint, this would free up more human capital to do good – to working in the helping professions.  But what if those jobs (or should we call them “serving opportunities”) don’t necessarily pay much or anything at all?

I don’t pretend to have the answer to these difficult questions. But I do believe that as we reform and rethink how career exploration and career planning happen, we need to also recognize the challenge our youths and adult will face – the employment market will continue to evolve rapidly and in ways we can’t forecast with any great deal of certainly.

One approach is to throw up our hands, say we can’t know what the future holds, so there’s no point in preparing youth for any of today’s  or tomorrow’s actual jobs.  There’s an education-myth making the rounds (actually it started back in 1994), that most of the jobs today’s children will hold haven’t even been invented yet!  I’ll write another blog specifically on this myth – but just know, it’s simply not true!

Yes, there will be very different technologies and business platforms in the future, but most of the jobs of the next ten or twenty years will be recognizable – technology, health, transportation, helping, teaching, etc.

It’s just hard to know exactly what mix of jobs there will be, and how robotics and automation will impact them.

Furthermore, if we don’t make education more relevant and connected to the world of work, we will continue to produce students who aren’t very engaged or prepared for the near future, let alone the distant future. Core academic knowledge and transferable career and life skills are indispensible, and that students need to learn those.  But we need to also prepare them, not for a lifetime career, but with a Career Navigation mindset, knowing they will need to continue learning and adapting to the changing world ahead.

While raising some disturbing scenarios, the authors end their treatise on a positive note – we can either race AGAINST the machines and fight change, or we can embrace and welcome technological change, and Race WITH them.  In my view, that’s the more feasible approach, and prepared with a flexible, adaptable Career Navigation mindset, our youths be able to embrace the future, instead of letting it pass them by.

[i] Brynjolfsson, Erik; McAfee, Andrew (2011-10-17). Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (Kindle Locations 14-15). Digital Frontier Press.

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com).  NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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