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"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandela

Why 21st Century Automation Won’t Create Mass Unemployment

By Carole Hornsby Haynes, Ph.D. September 19, 2019

Although some predict the 21st century of automation will bring high unemployment because there will be far fewer jobs. The problem is not that the world will have too many workers, but rather too few because of aging populations in both developed and developing economies. The answer? Wide spread automation.

Since the advent of industrialization 200 years ago, there have been periods of panic that workers would lose their jobs. Yet the world has seen more jobs created than were destroyed. The vast majority of the world’s population enjoying a higher standard of living than those who lived before the Industrial Revolution. Technological advances have provided us more free time for family time, travel, recreational activities, and personal time.

Instead of horse drawn carriages that traveled 50 miles in 8-12 hours over poorly constructed roads, we have comfortable cars with suspension and air conditioning that can travel at 50 miles per hour.

Covered wagons are gone but we have our modern version – campers – for traveling across the prairie along multi-lane expressways. Instead of slave labor to build the great pyramids, we have massive road equipment in which workers ride and operate to construct our multi-level super highways.

What nostalgic soul really misses outdoor plumbing or bathing in the river as did our founding fathers?

What farmer would rather use a horse drawn plow instead of an air-conditioned tractor? Instead of several workers, a field can be harvested in short order by a single harvesting machine. Some harvesters don’t even need a human rider.

We women really don’t miss cooking our families’ dinner in a fireplace over an open fire or hauling water inside for cooking. Instead of beating our carpets to clean them, we have small, lightweight vacuum cleaners.  Some families are using the robotic vacuum that will even vacuum while we're away from the house.  The messy job of cleaning ovens has been made obsolete by self-cleaning ovens.  Central whole house air purification systems can reduce furniture dusting as well as provide health benefits.

Mowing our yards via farm animals or scythes is long in the past. We've had push mowers, gas or electric powered mowers, and riding mowers. Now we have small robotic mowers that turn on automatically, cut the yard, return to storage, and then turn off.

How will automation affect workers?

Nearly 60% of jobs could have one-third of their tasks automated by existing technologies but only about 5% of jobs could be entirely automated. Only 9% of U.S. workers face a high risk of losing their jobs through automation, since some tasks in the same job can be done better by humans. It’s estimated that 65% of children today will work at future jobs that don’t even exist.

As many as 25% of U.S. women may require retraining for new occupation categories by 2030. Approximately 40% of the current daily tasks of elementary school teachers, of whom about 80% are women, could be automated by 2030. Teachers will have to develop new tech skills, including working with algorithmic systems.

Globally, between 40 to 160 million women will need to transition jobs by 2030. With jobs requiring physical and manual skills and basic cognitive skills decreasing, women must acquire higher education and skills.

What occupations are the fastest growing?

Even as manufacturing jobs are being replaced by robots, the demand for labor-intensive services with humans is soaring.

The U.S. Labor Department’s projections of the fastest growing occupations from 2018-2028 show the top two are Solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine service installers. High paying jobs in high demand include information security analysts, statisticians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Also in high demand are therapists and caretakers, especially physical therapists aides and assistants, occupational therapy aides and assistants, and home health aides.

Why robots will not make humans obsolete

In many service industries, using people rather than robots is a mark of luxury that people are willing to buy. Automation is expected to raise productivity globally with services accounting for a greater share of economic activity.

Sure, we can buy Seattle coffee to take home to brew. But going to Starbucks – now, that’s an experience. Who doesn’t enjoy an opportunity to visit with friends and savor a cup of “designer” coffee that is personally brewed brewed by the Starbucks barista...even if it is ridiculously expensive.

Online learning is all the rage but have you spent several hours a day in front of a computer studying American history, math, biology, and geography? Yeah, that’s digital learning – no wonder kids hate school.

Research shows that students respond much better to real live teachers. Do you suppose that’s why Silicon Valley executives don’t send their children to schools with online learning? Their precious offspring are taught by live teachers using old-fashioned chalkboards, pencils, and hard-copy textbooks.

No YouTube video or online learning is ever going to replace conventional colleges with face-to-face interactions with professors and other students. On a college campus one can join clubs and sports teams, build a social network, fall in love, and enjoy personal mentors. Wonderful memories for life. None of those experiences can be packaged in a YouTube.

Machines can do repetitive jobs but machines they can’t replace sales jobs or managerial positions which require selling, negotiating, and management skills. Machines are not nurturing nor persuasive nor can they diffuse an irate bank customer the way a human teller can.

A string of restaurants in China had to “fire” their robot waiters while some actually had to shut down because of the android incompetence. A human complained that "their skills are somewhat limited ... They can't take orders or pour hot water for customers."

Conclusion

The 21st century will bring seismic shifts worldwide in our lifestyles and economies. Low end jobs will be replaced by automation but millions of exciting new jobs will be created. The key for workers to transition in a continually changing job market is to be prepared with a solid academic foundation and skills in communication and then to obtain a job certification or a college degree.  Many of the jobs will require a certification rather than a college degree, at much less cost and time to prepare for new and exciting careers.

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