Jobs Sustainability: How Humans Can Beat the Robot Apocalypse

Stephen DeAngelis

May 1, 2017

“Robots have long been maligned for job-snatching,” writes Jeanna Smialek (@jeannasmialek). “Now you can add depressing wages and promoting inequality to your list of automation-related grievances. Industrial robots cut into employment and pay for workers, based on a new analysis of local data stretching from 1990 and 2007. The change had the biggest impact on the lower half of the wage distribution, so it probably worsened America’s wage gap.”[1] Such news can and should be depressing for the average worker. Some pundits are labeling the coming years the Robot Apocalypse or the Automation Apocalypse. Whatever you want to call the future, an apocalypse is an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale. Not good. Amid the fear-mongering, however, there are experts who believe humans can survive and thrive during these turbulent times. For example, Deloitte executives, Stephen Redwood, Mark Holmstrom, and Zach Vetter, assert, “CIOs can take a proactive approach to preparing the workforce for the tremendous technology-enabled changes required to compete in the years ahead.”[2] And Sarah Kessler (@SarahFKessler) writes, “Before you start campaigning for a universal basic income and set up a bunker, you might want to also familiarize yourself with the competing theory: In the long run, we’re going to be just fine.”[3]


Jobs Sustainability and the Robot Apocalypse


You might be wondering how anyone can express optimism about the future of jobs sustainability. After all, the latest news hasn’t been very good.[4] Paul Martin, Director of Operational Excellence & Strategy at Allegis Global Solutions, points out the conundrum underlying the debate about automation and jobs sustainability. “A fun (if unlikely) exchange between Henry Ford, and the head of the auto workers union, Walter Reuther, is often referenced to underline the paradox of job automation,” he writes. “The story is that they took a tour of a new automated factory, where Ford quipped … ‘How are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?’, to which Reuther deftly replied … ‘How will you get them to buy cars?’.”[5] Kessler adds, “Widespread unemployment due to technology has never materialized before. Why, argue the optimists, should this time be any different?” Actually, the pessimists have an answer to that question. Just watch the following video.



As Martin notes, “The convincing position taken in the video, is that whilst the automation of work does inevitably create new jobs, those new jobs won’t come close to replacing the number of jobs that will be lost to automation.” If you watched the video, you might have been tempted to reach for some Prozac or Zoloft. What the video didn’t address was the conundrum Martin pointed out above: Who will be buying all of the products being produced by robots when the unemployment rate hovers around 45%? Kessler writes, “Today’s optimists believe that the latest automation technologies will create new jobs as well. What kind of jobs, they really can’t say (this is where the optimism comes in handy). About a third of new jobs created in the United States over the past 25 years didn’t exist (or just barely existed) at the beginning of that period, and predicting what jobs might be created in the next 25 years is just guessing.” Guessing isn’t a very solid foundation upon which to build a future. One of the reasons optimists are sanguine is that, to date, automation has often taken over tasks rather than eliminated jobs. Kessler points to a McKinsey study that concluded, “More occupations will change than will be automated away.” She adds, “What separates the optimists from the pessimists is that they tend to believe that the economy as a whole will recover from this short-term adjustment period.”


Survival Strategies in the Age of Automation


The question at hand is how will the human workforce manage to survive during the robot apocalypse? It won’t be easy. Apocalypses, both real and imagined (like the Zombie apocalypse), cause pain and suffering. We are likely headed for some hard times during which human workers are going to have to adjust to changing circumstances. This will involve extensive education, training, and reskilling. Martin asserts, “If your job is one of many of the same, and the output can be made more competitive (cost, quality, speed) through self-service and automation. Then your job will almost certainly become self-service or automated as soon as technology, cost, and legislation changes allow it to happen.” He claims there are “two survival options.” They are:


  • Become a doomsday Prepper, spend your money on an underground shelter, dry food stores, and a water tank — then sit it out. Or
  • Seek out multi-dimensional work, learn to be flexible, stay open to lateral moves and career changes, and actively participate in politics to ensure policies and laws allow for positive change, rather than a widening gap between the have’s and have not’s.


In the area of policy, law, and regulation, Martin believes we need a dose of both social liberalism and conservative pragmatism if we are going to survive the apocalypse. “If we can combine the best of Socialism (WeFirst) and capitalism (MeFirst), and embrace automation and machine learning,” he writes, “I see a bright connected future.” He goes on to write, “I agree with Erik Brynjolfsson who said, ‘Racing with the machine beats racing against the machine. Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.'” He could also have quoted Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly), founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine, who wrote, “This is not a race against the machines. If we race against them, we lose. This is a race with the machines.”[6]


Although I agree with Martin that individuals need to prepare themselves for multi-dimensional work, it will take all stakeholders working together to create outcomes that benefit both society as a whole and individuals specifically. Kessler writes, “There’s a lot of stuff going on outside of technological developments, argue the automation optimists, like the decline of unions, weakening of labor laws, tax laws that benefit rich people, and education policies that haven’t adapted to a changing world — these are policy problems, and we should fix them rather than blaming technology.” If “automation optimists” believe they are going to survive the automation apocalypse by promoting industrial age ideas and using industrial age language, they are primed for disappoint. We need new ideas and new ways of describing the challenge so that both sides of the political spectrum can embrace practical solutions to a looming and dangerous situation. Kessler observes, “Both [optimists and pessimists] generally agree that there should be measures in place to reduce the impact of labor displacement from automation, like education programs for re-skilling workers who will lose their jobs. One side just tends to have a more darker view of what happens after that.” She goes on to quote MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who wrote in their 2014 entitled, The Second Machine Age: “Our generation has inherited more opportunities to transform the world than any other. That’s a cause for optimism, but only if we’re mindful of our choices.” One of those choices is giving people an opportunity to engage in useful and meaningful work. Claire Cain Miller (@clairecm) writes, “Whether there’s political will for big changes remains to be seen.”[7] She goes on to discuss some of the strategies experts have suggested for meeting the robot apocalypse challenge. In today’s bitter political climate, I fear many of them are non-starters. They include:


  • Provide More and Different Kinds of Education. “People need to learn new skills to work in the new economy. ‘The best response is to increase the skills of the labor force,’ said Gregory Mankiw, an economist at Harvard. … A growing number of jobs require a degree; the unemployment rate among people 25 to 34 with college degrees is just 2 percent, versus 8 percent for those who stopped their education after high school. But that goal seems far-fetched at a time when only about one-third of Americans have bachelor’s degrees.”
  • Create New and Better Jobs. “The problem, at least for now, is not that there isn’t enough work — there is, but it is very different from the kind of work technology is displacing. Manufacturing and warehousing jobs are shrinking, while jobs that provide services (health care, child care, elder care, education, food) are growing. ‘We are far from the end of work, but face a big challenge redeploying people toward addressing our society’s very real needs,’ Mr. Brynjolfsson said. One idea is for the government to subsidize private employment or even volunteer jobs.”
  • Bolster the Safety Net. “There seems to be bipartisan support for expanding the earned-income tax credit, which rewards low-income people for working. Much more fanciful, at least in the United States, is a universal basic income, in which the government gives everyone a guaranteed amount of money. But that idea is gaining with thinkers across the ideological spectrum. Critics say it would discourage people from working; proponents say it would free them to go back to school or to do work they’re passionate about.”
  • Change the Way Work is Done. “Most people have skills to earn money, so why not make it easier to do so without an employer? Freelance and contract workers could get portable benefits. They wouldn’t have to be tied to a job to get health insurance, for example, (though the drama over health care makes the expansion of other benefits seem unlikely). Similar and more feasible ideas include easing regulations for companies to hire contract workers (which is happening more, though not necessarily to the benefit of workers), and building co-working spaces so that people get the camaraderie of an office. Governments could also make it easier to start small businesses. Third Way proposes borrowing an idea from Silicon Valley and creating venture capital funds, seeded by the federal government, for states to invest in local entrepreneurs.”
  • Give Workers More of the Profits. “The earnings from automation have been shared unequally, with business owners getting a much larger share than workers. … But there’s no agreement on how to solve the problem. Liberals want to raise the minimum wage, while many conservatives want to keep it low so that human labor is less expensive than robot labor. … Bill Gates recently suggested taxing robots (in other words, taxing companies that own robots). One camp suggests raising corporate taxes while lowering income taxes for workers, but another proposes cutting or eliminating the corporate income tax and raising personal income tax rates instead. The government could create a minimum pension, which would require employers to contribute 50 cents per hour worked into a private retirement fund. Then again, employers might just lower wages to finance it.”


As I noted above, many of these ideas (like starting another government-mandated pension fund) are non-starters in the current political climate. Perhaps we should put AI platforms to work on generating ideas about how humans can survive the robot apocalypse!


[1] Jeanna Smialek, “Robots are slashing U.S. wages and worsening pay inequality,” Information Management, 30 March 2017.
[2] Stephen Redwood, Mark Holmstrom, and Zach Vetter, “Adapting to the Future of Work,” The Wall Street Journal, 30 March 2017.
[3] Sarah Kessler, “The optimist’s guide to the robot apocalypse,” Quartz, 9 March 2017.
[4] Stephen DeAngelis, “Jobs Sustainability: The Latest News is not Good News,” Enterra Insights, 2017.
[5] Paul Martin, “How to: Survive the Job Automation Apocalypse,” LinkedIn, 6 August 2015.
[6] Kevin Kelly, “The Seven Stages of Robot Replacement,” Backchannel, 27 December 2016.
[7] Claire Cain Miller, “How to Beat the Robots,” The New York Times, 7 March 2017.