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The Economy and AI: Preparing for the Future of Work

There is an accurate illustration of the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on employment where most people would not expect: Tim Burton’s adaptation of Ronald Dahl’s classic story, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In the film, Charlie’s father loses his job screwing caps on tubes of toothpaste to a robot but is ultimately rehired to repair the same robot that had replaced him (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Though a work of fiction, this portrays the essence of the AI and automation’s impact on employment, which leaders in business and economics have termed, “The Future of Work.” According to the World Bank, there are three main areas impacted by the changing nature of work: how we do business, how people work, and the demand for skills. Digital technologies allow businesses to expand at higher rates than before with fewer boundaries, more people are employed under flexible, short-term contracts, and advancements in technology replace more menial labor, requirement humans to do more cognitively advanced skills (World Bank). Preparing for the future of work is important and should be embraced because it has a wide impact on the economy, workforce, education, and society — including workers, business owners, students, especially those of color.

Fear of automation could hinder social, economic, and political progress. Historically, whether they are factory workers doing manual labor or business owners whose products or services would be rendered obsolete by new technology, people have feared that automation would disrupt their livelihoods. This is well illustrated by Queen Elizabeth I’s reaction to William Lee’s stocking frame knitting machine in 1589. Lee had traveled to London for a patent, hoping to relive workers of hand-knitting, but Queen Elizabeth was more concerned about how his invention would impact employment, stating, “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars” (Acemoglu and Robinson 6). Consider also, the Luddite Riots between 1811 and 1816 as an example of fear of technological change (Frey et al, Future of Employment 7). Though similar innovations have disrupted the workplace, they have ultimately afforded society the comforts many take for granted today and the average quality of life is better because of them.

Still, automation affects our political choices. A study at the University of Oxford suggested that support for Donald Trump was significantly higher in local labour markets more exposed to the adoption of robots, while another analysis based on their estimates showed that Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin would have swung in favor of Hillary Clinton if the exposure to robots had not increased in the immediate years leading up to the election (Frey et al, Political machinery 2016). Trump largely appealed to industrial workers in the Midwest who’s jobs were most susceptible to automation. However, should fear or insecurity of automation guide such important decisions? While the future of work may remove the need for certain tasks to be done by humans, it opens opportunities for work that is more beneficial to workers and consumers. What is more important is that people are educated about and given access to opportunities, especially pathways to gain new knowledge and skills for those whose jobs are most vulnerable to automation.

People working in low-skill jobs are most vulnerable to displacement by automation and many of those individuals are people of color. While the future of work will employ various amounts of people inside more technical and cognitively advanced jobs, the availability of machines puts workers in low-skill jobs at a greater probability of displacement, because simple are easier to automate. Additionally, the impact of displacement is vast. A report by Mckinsey and Company suggests that “60 percent of occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent work activities that could be automated” (8). Vulnerable occupations include transportation and logistics, office and administrative support, and labor in production (Frey et al, Future of Employment 44). This impacts people of color more because, historically, people of color have been limited to low-skilled work due to restricted educational opportunities, hiring bias, and underrepresentation in technology fields. In fact, the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis found that Latinx workers are 25 percent more likely to lose their jobs due to automation, compared to white people, while African Americans are 13 percent more likely (Chen). Thus, it is critical that these groups prepare for the future of work by leveraging advocacy groups and online resources such as the National Society of Black Engineers, Free Code Camp, and other free Massive Open Online Courses support skill development.

There is no ignoring the future of work. Preparing for the future of work is important and should be embraced because it has a wide impact on the economy, workforce, education, and society — including workers, business owners, students, especially those of color. It impacts social, economic and political choices as well as employment. However, those who leverage opportunities to gain new skills will triumph in the transition, because, although the opportunities may look different, they will still be there.

Works Cited

Acemoglu, Daron and David Autor. Skills, Tasks and Technologies: Implications for

Employment and Earnings. 2010. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.EB9B5C60&site=eds-live.

Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail : The Origins of Power, Prosperity

and Poverty. Crown Publishers, 2012. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat04812a&AN=dwr.16808094&site=eds-live.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Directed by Tim Burton, Warner Bros. Entertainment, 2005.

Chen, Jess. “Automation expected to disproportionately affect the less educated.” Institute for

Spatial Economic Analysis. 2017. https://www.iseapublish.com/index.php/2017/06/26/automation-expected-to-disproportionately-affect-the-less-educated/

Frey, Carl Benedikt, et al. The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to

Computerisation? Working. 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsbas&AN=edsbas.9D2C9BF4&site=eds-live.

Frey, Carl Benedikt, et al. “Political machinery: did robots swing the 2016 US presidential election?”, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Volume 34, Issue 3, Autumn 2018, Pages 418–442, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxrep/gry007

McKinsey and Company, “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in Time of Automation.” December 2017.

World Development Bank, “World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work.” 2018, pp. 17–34., doi:10.1596/978–1–4648–1328–3_ch1.