CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
February 22, 2020

Robots won't put you in the unemployment line

Robots will soon transform the workplace in amazing ways, but they will not throw you out of work.

In his seminal 2016 work The Inevitable, acclaimed technology writer Kevin Kelly offered 12 provocative predictions. Among them was a rather striking pronouncement: 70 percent of jobs that exist today will be gone in 50 years' time.

Recognizing that folks would scoff at this outlandish idea, he went on to explain that it's happened before, and not really all that long ago. In the last quarter of the 19th century, roughly 80 percent of America's jobs were in agriculture. Fast forward to the 1970s, and that number had dropped to 3 percent. The other agriculture jobs had been replaced by machines.

It will be a repeat scenario in the decades ahead—but with one important change. Given the accelerating rate of change, Kelly believes (and we agree) that this time around, the workforce shift will happen much faster.

That's not as ominous as it might sound. Folks still found work after the farm jobs went away. And they often went on to better jobs that required less backbreaking work. The second wave of automation—which will be fueled by advances in robotics and machine learning—promises to have much the same effect, replacing many of the menial jobs that humans, for the most part, don't like anyway. As noted author and business blogger Seth Godin often notes: "If your job is easy, you have reason to be worried."

As the robotics revolution continues to advance, though, it won't be just the "easy jobs" that go away. Many of the jobs slated for extinction are neither menial nor mindless. In many cases, they could be considered "knowledge work." So it's understandable that people would feel threatened by the rise of sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled machines.

What often gets overlooked in the discussion, however, is that there will be jobs. They just won't be the jobs we know today. The jobs of the future will be ones we couldn't have imagined when we were growing up. It's a pretty safe bet that no one reading this ever dreamed of becoming an "augmented reality journey builder" or "cyber calamity forecaster." But soon, someone will.

And that's just the half of it. Remember, many of the technologies that will shape your life and your workplace 20 to 30 years from now haven't even been invented yet. Things are moving and advancing so quickly, big thinkers are already talking about life after Google—which they don't see as that far off.

For a glimpse of how the digital revolution is already reshaping the workplace, you need look no farther than the "Jobs of the Future Index," recently launched by consulting firm Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work. The index tracks eight "families" of jobs that are expected to grow as a result of the rising digitization of work and the workplace, as well as the jobs that are seeing the greatest growth in demand. The new report's list of the five fastest-growing jobs in the past year will be of interest to anyone working in logistics. They include personal care aide (+295 percent), genetics counselor (+222 percent), transportation supervisor (+204 percent), fashion designer (+148 percent), and videogame designer (+102 percent).

As you can see, not every job of the future will require you to be a computer scientist. There will be plenty of jobs in areas where humans still outperform machines as well as jobs (like transportation supervisor) that still require a human touch even as more and more digital components come into play.

Fret not, advances in robotics, automation, AI, and other technologies are for the most part a good thing. The future is something to look forward to, not fear. You may have a different job, but you'll still have plenty to do.

Mitch Mac Donald is Group Editorial Director of AGiLE Business Media.

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