climbing up a swinging ladder
PHOTO: Jason Wong

Years ago a manager told me, “If you have a boring, repetitive task, give it to the laziest person you know — they will figure out a way to automate it.” I had a teenager at home at the time. Trust me, it's true.

Automation at Home vs. Automation at Work

We are perfectly happy to have automation in our personal lives. Think about the iRobot vacuum cleaner, or the most basic of automation (and laziness): the universal remote control that turns on the TV, DVD and sound system with the press of one button from the comfort of your recliner.

But mention automation at work and people get uneasy. Most of the time that unease is about job security — will automation replace my job? While we welcome Industry 4.0 in our homes and adapt quite easily, for some reason, we are not as welcoming and wiling to adapt at work.

The argument is usually that there is a choice to have automation at home but not at work. I would argue there is a choice at work as well. Certainly we are not living in a society that forces anyone to work at a specific job or company. Someone’s social or economic situation may limit the choices, but there is always choice. And there is always the capacity to adapt through training.

We also have the capacity to make informed choices when choosing a career or adapting midway through a career. When automobiles were invented, it took over 20 years before the horse and buggy truly disappeared. However, by the 1920s, it would have been foolish to open a horse and buggy business. The writing was on the wall. What happened to the horse and buggy makers and repairers? They shifted to work on car carriages. Buckle and tack makers started making car seats. They chose to adapt their skills to something new.

The point is there will always be new innovations and faster and cheaper ways of doing things. Time doesn’t stand still. Businesses that stand still don’t survive or suffer greatly — just ask Kodak or Nokia. We should view our careers through the same lens. Are you standing still?

If the answer is yes, then you have a choice. Choose to stand still or choose to adapt to the new way.

Related Article: How Will Automation Affect the Future Workplace?

Embrace Change, Don't Fear It

Articles with titles such as this recent CNN piece, “The robots are coming for your job, too,” don't help, as they stoke the fears of those who choose to stand still. While it's true many jobs may no longer exist or will not exist at the current volume (how many horse buggy makers do you know?), it doesn’t mean that overall employment opportunities decline. Automation has been happening for dozens of decades and history proves that employment has not declined. In fact, in many cases it increases. Case in point, with the advent of the ATM, bank tellers were no longer in demand, yet bank employment grew as banks shifted to other services. In fact, the number of bank locations and staff increased.  

While alarming headlines are meant to attract your attention, if you read the article, the conclusion is that robots are not coming for your job, but rather will work alongside you if you have adapted. Adapting can take the form of new training, or choosing a new career or job that is more service-oriented. It also means society must adapt because as the CNN article notes, traditional blue-collar jobs are affected, and the new jobs require more specialized knowledge skills or softer skills such as empathy. Robots cannot empathize and adjust based on that empathy — at least not yet. This means different kinds of education, and new approaches to offering educational opportunities need to be considered to prepare the incoming workforce.

I was recently interviewed on the topic of robots, jobs and whether there was cause for fear. One of the things we discussed was that history, facts and figures point to the shift of job types that we will have in the future and that we will work alongside and not be replaced by robots. However, at the root of the topic, is a person’s attitude and willingness to adapt. Embracing change rather than denying or bemoaning it is the first step.

Related Article: Did You Know Your New Colleague Is a Robot?