How you can protect your job from automation

Automation and the workplace is an issue that I’ve touched on extensively in the past year or so, and I’m broadly cynical about the doomsday scenarios that are proliferating at the moment, in no small part because of the dubious methodology many of the studies that underpin these ‘robots will take our jobs’ scenarios.

It would be churlish to believe that new technologies won’t impact the labor market though, and it will undoubtedly pay to be as agile and adaptive as possible.

A recent paper published in the European Journal of Personality examines the kind of traits we might consider developing to help us stave off our automated rivals.

Being human

“Robots can’t perform as well as humans when it comes to complex social interactions,” the authors say. “Humans also outperform machines when it comes to tasks that require creativity and a high degree of complexity that is not routine. As soon as you require flexibility, the human does better.”

The study saw data from nearly 350,000 people analyzed over a 50 year timeframe to look at personality traits and vocational interests in adolescence, along with intelligence and socioeconomic status.  They then matched this with jobs that are at risk of automation.

“We found that regardless of social background, people with higher levels of intelligence, higher levels of maturity and extraversion, higher interests in arts and sciences … tended to select (or be selected) into less computerizable jobs 11 and 50 years later,” the authors say.

Suffice to say, as with many of these studies, it probably pays to take the ‘risk of automation’ assumptions with a large pinch of salt, as most require quite a leap of faith, but it does nonetheless underline the challenges society faces in being agile enough to respond.

Training for the future

The authors argue that traditional education may not be sufficiently equipped to deal to the changes likely to occur in the labor market, both in the kind of topics studied at school, and indeed on the renewed emphasis on lifelong learning.

“Perhaps we should consider training personality characteristics that will help prepare people for future jobs,” they say.

Sadly, whilst policy makers have said the right things, I’m not sure their actions really support their words. That was reinforced by a recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).

“Policymakers are flying blind into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution,” the authors say.

For agencies to assess the possible impact of technology on the labor market, the authors contend that they need to collect very different kinds of labor data.

The paper reminds us that whilst the exact changes to the labor market will be unclear, there will be disruption, and a crucial start point is to know the precise state of affairs at the moment.  Alas, it’s a desire that is often lacking in policy circles.

“There is a dramatic shortage of information and data about the exact state of the workforce and automation, so policymakers don’t know answers to even basic questions such as ‘Which types of technologies are currently having the greatest impacts on jobs?’ and ‘What new technologies are likely to have the greatest impact in the next few years?’” the authors say.

A good example comes from the UK, where three years ago the UK Commission for Employment and Skills examined the future of work in 2030.  A report outlined a number of scenarios for how work might be changing.

The report rightly comments on the changing nature of work and the fact that people entering the workforce today have numerous different jobs in various professions over the course of their career.

“The idea of a single education, followed by a single career, finishing with a single pension is over,” the report comments.

And yet three years on from that, the government is still squabbling over grammar schools, and greater support for lifelong learning is little more than an afterthought among policy makers.

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