The robots are not coming for your job (probably)

One of the questions I am asked most often at the moment comes from worried parents. It isn’t about house prices; it is about jobs: will their children ever be able to get one – or will the robots have nabbed the lot?

I can’t find it in myself to worry about this too much on the basis that society has regular panic attacks in about machines taking over from men and hell resulting (this was, of course, one of the core ideas in Marx’s Das Kapital).

However, machines have been taking over from men on a very regular basis for the last few hundred years and the result has generally been pretty good. As fast as milkmen, telephone operators, textile workers, farmworkers, blacksmiths and supermarket till operators have seen their jobs disappear, new jobs have popped up to replace them.

The UK is about as close to full employment as it gets and a reasonable number of the nastiest and most boring jobs of the past no longer have to be done by actual people. Both of these are good things.

It is also worth noting that if robots were really taking over as fast as many fear, we would be seeing fast-rising productivity (with the help of a crew of robots, each human worker should be able to produce more in an hour than without them).

This also isn’t the first time that machines have taken over the work of the highly skilled/professional. Sure, this time they are after the world’s lawyers, accountants, data processors and doctors. But the textile workers of 19th century England were very highly skilled too. And just think what the calculator did to the world’s mathematicians.

It seems, says Jonathan Allum of SMBC Nikko, that commentators are once again falling  victim to a version of the Lump of Labour Fallacy – the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done that can be shared out so as to create more or fewer jobs. This isn’t how economies work.

Instead, a ready supply of labour tends to play a role in creating demand for labour: how else to explain the fact that 19% of UK workers are one way or another employed in the health and restaurant sector, or that the number of jobs in transport and storage just keeps rising.

It is also hard to imagine that this won’t keep happening – that new sources of jobs won’t appear as old ones disappear. Some of the jobs our children might end up in are as impossible to predict as app developer was 30 years ago; a barista was 40 years ago; a nanotechnologist or phone screen repair person was a decade ago; or an Instagram star was a mere five years ago.

But others will simply be better versions of jobs we have today. The fastest growing occupations in the West are in areas such as healthcare, therapy, hospitality and the like – all areas, as Allum points out in which robots, unlike humans, are “singularly ill equipped” to help.

The same probably goes for teaching, personal fitness training (can you be motivated by a robot?) fashion (you want a robot helping you decide what looks nice?) and even things such as dentistry (we might be OK with robot heart surgery but I suspect dental hygiene is a different matter).

Robots will change the workplace. But history is telling you pretty clearly that your kids will still be working for a living even as they do.