Automation: The Most Disruptive Workplace Threat?

The UK workplace is a tricky one to judge. On the one hand, our wages are stubbornly refusing to rise in line with inflation (so our purchases cost more than we earn); on the other hand, the country is almost at full working capacity, with unemployment at all-time low.

But it seems that UK workers have a far bigger concern: Automation.

According to job-search website Indeed, automated technologies which could, theoretically, replace us at work, was listed as the number one fear – beating out concerns over Brexit, the falling value of the pound, and immigration.

Mariano Mamertino, EMEA economist at Indeed, said:

‘Workers have identified the threat of automation, even if politicians have largely ignored it. In the run-up to the election we have seen campaigns focused on issues such as Brexit, immigration and tax. However, these results show that the average worker is much more unnerved by the prospect of being replaced by a machine and companies moving jobs abroad, rather than competition from immigration.’

He added:

‘With net migration to the UK falling in 2016, workers are perhaps ahead of the politicians here. While automation and globalisation are a threat to some jobs, they also underpin overall economic growth. These are labour market shifts that have an uneven impact on workers and regions, and politicians should demonstrate long-term thinking on jobs and employment in order to tip the balance in favour of the workers who will be hardest hit.’

But is automation really the biggest threat Britain’s workforce faces?

No doubt about it, it’s a massive game-changer for all, and the concerns by those particularly on tighter budgets is understandable. There’s a good reason that entrpeneur Elon Musk suggests that, as automation becomes more widespread, ‘there is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation. Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen.’

In many ways, automation and the rise of artificial intelligence is the 21st century digital equivalent of the Industrial Revolution, which saw mechanical machines take over certain roles from factory workers. In the automated revolution, it’s much the same sort of jobs that are – according to several studies – at risk of becoming obsolete.

These workplace roles are likely to be anything that requires repetitive manual input, such as audiotypists and data entry clerks. Transport workers might, too, be considered an ‘at-risk’ job, given advances currently being made in driverless automotive industries. Some, like Oxford University’s 2014 study, even show how the medical workforce will alter, upon the introduction of analytical machines used to identify diseases and illnesses.

In practical terms, it’s not quite so clear-cut, and it may not all be bad news. For one thing, while technological advancements in the workplace are moving rapidly, the costs of full automation for most companies is simply out of reach, leaving plenty of time for proper planning. And even then, it doesn’t necessarily suggest the end of workers. Quite the opposite.

Take the introduction of the barcode scanner as an example. Far from ending the career of cashiers, it led to a growth in cashier employment, while an entire support industry blossomed from its invention.

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella best summed up the overall intention of automation, saying:

‘The fundamental need of every person is to be able to use their time more effectively, not to say, ‘let us replace you’.

With a serious focus by governments and private companies on ensuring automation supports but doesn’t replace us, perhaps the 1,600 workers surveyed by Indeed may find that while workplaces continue to evolve, the face of the workforce remains intact.

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