The future of jobs in the age of automation

In case you’ve been off-world or lost at sea for the past decade, it is obvious that technology is remaking the literal and figurative map of the world in breakneck fashion. As adaptable creatures, we may find ways to become habituated to these changes despite how rapidly behaviors and mores have shifted in this millennium. More troublingly, though, while technological changes bring myriad possibilities for communication and exchange, in the aggregate there are also patterns of isolation, depression and ill health. We may consider these as mere externalities against the lure of electronic bells and whistles, but they are demonstrable.

It is in this same mixed-bag vein that Andrés Oppenheimer assesses the present and future of work in an age of increasing automation in his provocative new book, “The Robots Are Coming! The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation.” The coming changes will manifest mechanically in the sense of robots performing physical labor, and process-wise in terms of algorithms influencing decisions at all levels. Whatever field one examines — from servers and clerks to doctors and lawyers — automation is going to have a major, perhaps even seismic, impact.

Indeed, some professions may be eliminated altogether (and not just video store clerks or travel agents, but bank tellers and tax accountants, too), whereas others will have to adapt to survive (such as doctors becoming more like consultants and coordinators of care rather than diagnosticians or surgeons).

In this brave new world, growth industries will include robot technicians and Zumba trainers. It is not entirely clear how the latter makes the cut, but it is invoked on numerous occasions in the book; basically, it appears that if you aren’t directly servicing the machines, you might have a lot more time on your hands for self-improvement.

The premise of the book is simple, even as the effects may be profound: Whatever dramatic changes the last decade has brought in terms of technological advance, the next decades are going to dwarf that exponentially. We are talking here about pervasive virtual reality experiences (to the extent that people may lose the capacity to determine what is “real”), on-demand 3-D printing of nearly any requisite item (like an extra pair of shoes while on vacation), and even flying self-driven taxis (which apparently have already been piloted — no pun intended — in Dubai). Even celebrities increasingly will be shrewdly and indiscernibly digitized.

If this sounds exciting to you then Oppenheimer won’t rain on your parade, even as he provides enough cautionary scenarios to keep you engaged in the book’s compelling narrative. Organized thematically around key industries and professions and framed by introductory and concluding chapters casting the inquiry against macrocosmic trends already emerging in society, Oppenheimer boldly walks the line between techno-optimism and techno-pessimism, while likewise disavowing the cop-out position of claiming to be a “techno-realist.” So what does that leave? Sadly, perhaps something more like a techno-palliative.

Humans, we have a problem. “The Robots Are Coming!” does a credible job diagnosing the nature of the conundrum through cogent analysis, informative interviews and illustrative anecdotes (e.g., staying in a robot-run hotel; having a favorite parking lot attendant surreptitiously replaced).

In so doing, Oppenheimer doesn’t shy away from the conclusion that in the short term, rampant automation is likely to result in massive unemployment (or at least underemployment), exacerbated inequality, patterns of individual deprivation and social strife and perhaps even violence. Yet we are told in the conclusion that (a) the world is getting better, (b) the excesses of Big Tech will be remediated in the coming few decades, and (c) people will live better and with more leisure time at hand.

Unfortunately, none of these rosy suppositions are supported by much evidence; even as speculations, they might hold more water as extrapolations of current trends rather than quasi-mystical resolutions to brewing problems bordering on mass upheaval.

To be fair, Oppenheimer tries to avoid saccharine invocations of politically correct hopefulness, and in many ways this text could serve as a handbook for how to reinvent oneself and stay relevant in a rapidly changing world. But set against the magnitude of the problems — profound alienation, loss of purpose, mass dislocation, and more — this seems incongruous and insufficient.

On the other hand, it is hard to fault the author for bringing these challenges (which he didn’t create, after all) to our urgent attention, and there is no point in blaming the messenger. On some level the attempt to discern a kernel of grounded optimism — including an epilogue listing the top ten robot-proof jobs of the near future — has a noble, almost reassuringly parental, quality to it. Oppenheimer is a reporter by trade (incidentally, a field that in itself isn’t immune to roboticization), and there is no doubt that he takes that role seriously: “The Robots Are Coming!” is a diverting and sobering example of solid reportage.

In these terms the book is an important read for anyone concerned about the future (which probably should be everyone at this point). It isn’t intended to be prescriptive, even as it does advance a range of individual adjustments (for example: lifelong learning, reskilling and reinvention, cultivating passion) and societal responses (including a universal basic income and reformulating education from knowledge acquisition to moral and creative development).

If the book had left it at that—detailing the challenges and providing possible opportunities—then readers could decide for themselves how to navigate the road ahead. For this reader, however, the closing chapter (before the “top ten jobs” list in the epilogue) titled “Eventually, Automation Will Make the World a Better Place” reveals the author’s nascent bias, without satisfactory justification.

This isn’t to say that one hopes Oppenheimer is wrong in his penultimate predictions, or that the arc of technological progress is unremittingly apocalyptic (which does make for excellent sci-fi and speculative fiction). It is more so the problem in sending a message that “things will work out in the end” to people who are and will be losing their livelihoods—many of whom are already those most directly impacted by pervasive inequality and marginalization, which seems like promising workers “pie in the sky” from a bygone era. Oppenheimer’s tone indicates that he does care, yet few workers show up as interview subjects here.

Then again, this may be holding the book’s core argument to an unreachable standard. After all, no one seems to have an answer for the hyper-technological web that infuses every aspect of modern life, and indeed it often appears as if many people don’t want one as long as the programming is good and the shipping is free.

Some may even be titillated by the prospect of flying automated vehicles, virtual immersion, and more (as an aside, the book is silent about any romantic or sexual implications of robotics). Still, for critics and adopters alike, this book has something to offer and may even be counted someday as prophetic. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us of the persuasive power of good old-fashioned human writing in an age of automation—something that may yet endure.

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Co-Director of the Justice & Peace Studies and Environmental Studies programs at Georgetown University. He teaches and publishes widely on subjects including peacebuilding and nonviolence, social and environmental justice, political theory and movements, and the impacts of emerging technologies.

The Robots Are Coming! The Future of Jobs in the Age of Automation

By Andres Oppenheimer. Penguin Random House, 416 pages paperback, $16.95