Robots Don't Get Ennui: How to Stop Worrying and Love the Machine

There is no shortage of philosophical battles attempting to decide if disruptive technologies provide a net positive or negative value to society. The most common fight is consumer value versus job elimination, pitting new tech-centric entrants against incumbent employees. And while there is ample disagreement over whether technology’s virtues are greater than its damages, there seems to be consensus that disrupted job loss is permanently damaging to society and to the individuals who undergo it. Bernard Condon and Paul Wiseman perhaps voiced today's anti-tech fervor most effectively in their AP article Recession and Tech Kill Middle Class Jobs:

“For decades, science fiction warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines; an Associated Press analysis finds that the future has arrived.”

Even top tech investors like Chris Sacca worry out loud about the consequences of tech advancements on displaced employees: “[there is a] consumer benefit, but with an externality that wipes out somebody’s job.” But what if the consensus is wrong and those wiped out jobs were not negatives on a plus / minus ledger? What if job displacement at the hands of tech is actually healthy for both society and the newly unemployed?

1

Though most view the modern information age as synonymous with tech, technology has always existed. It is nothing more than the tools and processes we use to achieve objectives, and world history is replete with its continuous advancements. In the industrial era, disrupted jobs were always part of the technology story. When looking back at displaced jobs of the 20th century, no one bemoans the absence of them. We don’t miss the human pinsetters at the local bowling alley, for instance; nor is it thought to be a shame that all the great artisan pinsetters have vanished. Same with telegraph operators, lamplighters, and the milkman.

Yet in that time, job loss was painful for those people and their companies. In retrospect, the technology that eliminated their jobs was clearly better for society as a whole. But the real question is: wasn’t their next job so much better? Didn’t it have to be?

History is not littered with stories of 25 year-old telegraph operators who lost their job and never worked again. On the contrary, they adapted, learned something new and thrived in a new job that required greater skill and paid more. This is not anecdotal: real data shows that over the past 140 years tech has created more jobs than it eliminated, and we don’t miss the jobs that are now gone for good.

2

140 years of historical data isn’t comforting to most who feel their jobs are at risk of being automated, however. The level of disruption we are experiencing now feels different than that of the past. This is for one reason: pace.

Innovation cycles are happening much faster and are clearly accelerating. In 1958, US corporations in the S&P 500 stayed there for 61 years on average. By 1980, that average had shrunk to 25 years, and now it sits in the mid-teens. That is major churn, and those figures are just company stats; the level of job churn is much higher. If someone lost their job to technology in the 20th century, it likely only happened once. For consumers and job holders alike, innovation cycles lasted long enough to be thoroughly understood, socialized, and embraced. But since 2000, 52% of Fortune 500 companies have gone bankrupt, been acquired, or otherwise ceased to exist. There isn’t enough time to digest the full meaning of each tech breakthrough anymore.

While healthy, the speed of tech innovation is giving both corporate leaders and their employees a serious anxiety complex. It’s like being out of shape and hiring a drill instructor to follow you 24/7 and scream RUN! through a megaphone. You are bound to get leaner and faster, but will be a bundle of nerves throughout the process.

To make matters worse, the anxiety has bred contempt between employees and their companies. As large traditional organizations take greater innovation measures, they tend to be opaque to their employees regarding automation strategy. The result is bad for everyone:

  • How can employees be a part of their company’s future if they don’t know anything about it? They can’t. Large layoffs are imminent.
  • How can companies compete with startups if large swaths of their employees are not engaged? They can’t. A high rate of market failure is imminent.

To be sure, this dynamic is creating lots of opportunity for new businesses and making entrepreneurs out of those who would not have otherwise made the leap. Even so, the short-term job carnage is grueling. Most of the people displaced by tech are ill-equipped to do anything else in the new economy that just ate their job. They never saw it coming, thus spending a substantial part of their early unemployed days looking for work relevant to their existing skills, finally realizing there isn’t any. New training eventually occurs, but it’s typically just enough to get employment, and their real wage may even be lower in the new role.  

3

Despite the grueling process of job loss, displaced employees are happier over time. Their eventual realization is that job separation was the event required to reflect on life and understand that they were unhappy. People lose themselves in their work, and if that work is moribund then so is life. Being forced to break out and examine oneself is the best thing that can happen.

It actually appears that most people secretly want to be fired. Job dissatisfaction is high, yet we are afraid of losing the very jobs that make us so unhappy. So many headlines read along the lines of “employees fearful of losing jobs to technology”, when they should really read “employees more excited than ever that they will lose their jobs to tech, and relish the self-examination to follow”.

4

A problem is solved, a solution is designed, and the product is implemented. It’s over. Everything after that is repetition: cranking an output one time perfectly, then repeating.  This repetition is where the cash is generated to pay off the product’s investment and where the vast majority of the labor market is concentrated. This is the economy that politicians so fervently try to expand with promises of new and protected jobs, and what society thinks it needs to thrive. And yet repeating objective tasks is not what humans are meant to do. It’s what robots are meant to do. We are spending time protecting and then living our robot status at the expense of doing fun, fulfilling things for work.

Perhaps the strongest human propensity that keeps employees afraid of a fulfilling professional future is falling into ruts. Ruts exist because we are willing to sacrifice what we need to be happy to get what we need to survive. Of all the human needs, feeling physiologically stable takes priority. The needs for happiness are so much deeper, expansive, and idealistic; but risking safety to be happy is too scary for most. It takes being forced out of the employment safety zone to realize losing one’s rutty job is a good thing.

Living in a rut is an addiction to the status quo. It’s just as damaging as any other addiction, but hard to detect. It’s insidious because it’s chronic, not acute. The consequences are severe, but we aren’t orchestrating interventions for each other. When technology eliminates a job, it is just the intervention needed.

Hi there! We are robots and we’re here to help you stop dying slowly on the inside.

This is the right way to look at technology that eliminates jobs – saving us from something bad, not taking away something good. If it doesn’t require cleverness, creativity, dynamic problem solving, or a personal human touch, it should and will be automated. It has all happened before, and both society and the fired employees always came out better. It just happened in slower cycles, so it feels like something different this time.

5

A professional landscape where everyone gets to use their best personal attributes  to solve problems and build things that change the world is universally viewed as utopian. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t like the sound of fulfilling work, letting robots take care of the mundane. The problem for the workforce today is actually believing that this will be the case in a mass automation society.

What we choose to believe about the future is based on philosophy more than anything else, and examining human nature tells us what we need to know: we are problem solvers, we are diverse, and we all like at least some risk in our lives. There is no plausible scenario where a handful of rich robot-owners make all the money and the masses are left unemployable; not even the rich robot owners would like that. Nor would it ever work: the technology we deploy is not the end state of any given mission, it is the means we use to get us to the big picture goal. Our history proves that we innovate for the purpose of human betterment, and move to new frontiers when we are done with the last. Humans have adapted to new environments before, and we will again. 

6

The truth is that technology has never eliminated a single job, but the way we have chosen to take advantage of the productivity gains technology provides has eliminated millions of them. It was choosing to cash in instead of choosing to reinvest. It’s ec, not tech. Until now, economics dictated the churn of workforce as a skill set became obsolete and the next one developed. With organizations now struggling to find talent with the right skills to drive fast innovation, economics are showing that retaining home grown talent is the sustainable way forward. As processes become objectively repeatable, they will be automated; but instead of getting laid off, employees get to work on something new and more fulfilling. Employees carry half of the responsibility in this endeavor. Proactive self-development, well ahead of job displacement events, will complete the bridge that enables workforce stability to coexist with rapid innovation cycles. 

The great news is these things are already happening. We are at the bottom of a 20-year curve in the new economy, having already started on the bridge that even now seems too difficult to cross. Here are the forthcoming advancements in the professional landscape that will enable us to stop worrying and love the machine: