Humans are nothing if not contrary. Technology destroying jobs is something most Americans accept will happen within their lifetimes, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center, just not to their own jobs — which most believe won’t change significantly in the next 50 years.
Polling just over 2,000 Americans in June and July last summer to ask about their perception of the risk of jobs being automated, the researchers found a majority (65 per cent) of Americans believe that robots and/or software will “definitely” or “probably” be capable of doing much of the work that humans do now within 50 years’ time.
But when the robots and the algorithms move a little closer to home – and the question becomes specifically about the future security of their own jobs — respondents’ views are very different, with an even larger majority (80 per cent) convinced their own jobs and professions will remain largely unchanged and will exist in their current form 50 years from now.
More than a third (36 per cent) of respondents expressed definitive confidence that their current job or occupation will “definitely” exist in its current form five decades from now vs just six per cent saying their current role will “definitely not” exist.
Even younger respondents believe the jobs they are doing now will remain much the same come 2065. Indeed, they are a little more confident than older workers that their employment prospects aren’t going to change radically, with 84 per cent of workers aged 18 to 29 expecting no big changes to the role they are currently doing in the next 50 years vs only 76 per cent of workers aged 50 or older.
Younger workers were also a bit more likely to be skeptical of the notion that robots will replace much of human work, with more than a third (35 per cent) of 18- to 49-year-olds thinking it’s unlikely to happen vs less than a third (27 per cent) of those aged 50 or older.
Those with college degrees; households with higher annual incomes; and those who work in the government, education or nonprofit sector were also more skeptical that machines will render most human elbow grease redundant in the near future.
In the same study, Pew did find that just over a tenth (11 per cent) of the polled workers are at least somewhat concerned they might lose their job as a result of workforce automation. However other more immediate worries – including mismanagement by their employers; displacement by lower paid human workers; broader industrial trends; and concerns over learning new technical skills for their current role – are more of a concern for the employed, rather than the rise of robots and smarter algorithms replacing their labor entirely.
Pew also looked at how attitudes vary depending on the type of work being done. Here it’s a sliding scale, with blue-collar workers generally the most confident their jobs will remain resilient to the rise of robots and white-collar executive/managerial workers the least secure in their perception of the robustness of their future employment prospects.
The study found that close to a majority (41 per cent) of those whose jobs involve manual or physical labor expect the same job to exist unchanged by 2065, while around a third (34 per cent) of those in professional occupations expressed the same belief vs just over a fifth (23 per cent) of managerial or executive role workers.
But again workers whose jobs involve primarily manual or physical labor did also express heightened concern about all potential employment threats, especially replacement by robots/machines — with fully 17 per cent of these respondents at least somewhat concerned about the threat from workforce automation, and 11 per cent saying they are “very concerned”.
Are the majority of Americans being hopelessly optimistic when it comes to their own future employment prospects? Time will tell. If you flip the exercise and look back at the kind of jobs people were doing in 1965 vs the kind of roles that exist now it’s evident there are plenty of blue-collar and professional jobs, at least, that existed then and do still exist now – be it teacher, doctor, nurse, driver and so on.
There are of course also a swathe of new jobs that have been created by the rise of technologies such as the Internet and ecommerce. And these newer job roles – whether it’s social media marketer or native app programmer — are perhaps more likely to have a shorter lifespan than traditional job roles, given the technologies they are founded on are likely to keep changing, thereby potentially shifting the demands of the work associated with them.
The larger question is of course whether shifts towards increasing automation of jobs will transform the technological underpinning of vast numbers of more traditional jobs — by, for example, automating driving via AI-powered driverless vehicles, thereby making human drivers redundant.
On those bigger questions about the looming impact of automation on employment, Americans at least appear to be sitting on the fence about what it means for future job prospects. And despite expressing significance confidence in the power of technology to transform human employment, they do not appear quite so ready to imagine a future where most humans are out of work.