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Automation for the people?

The threat of automation and job destruction is real, but overblown.
Player pianos were an early form of automation. (Public Domain)
Listen12:17

Ah, yes, the promise of our fully automated future.

Hardly a week goes by when we don't see or hear a news story about the next big thing in automation. Self-driving cars. Natural speech recognition. Robots that will carry your stuff.

Eventually, everything will be so automated we just sit on our Jetsons couch and live a life of leisure!

Or maybe that's Wall-E. Hmm.

The thing is, when is that future coming? Or is it already here?

This much is true: automation hasn't replaced nearly as many jobs, or even tasks, as you might think.

At least according to one source, in the past 60 years, only the "elevator operator" is a career that's been completely automated, except for nostalgic reasons.

Other jobs? Not so much.

Katy George
According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, very few jobs are destined to become fully automated.

In the future, "most jobs that exist today will exist in some form.

"But almost every job will change form quite dramatically," says Katy George, a senior director at McKinsey and Company.

But that doesn't mean people should become complacent.

Automation won't require them to learn new skills as new technologies are introduced - and governments would be wise to promote retraining programs, she says.

The pace of automation depends on a lot of economic factors, she says.

The technology has to be solid and reliable to warrant the expense, and, moreover, the economic climate has to support the investment.

Ryan Avent
That's something that Ryan Avent has spent a lot of time thinking about.

He's a senior editor at The Economist and the author of The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century.

Ryan thinks the pace of automation is slow right now for a very specific reason: There is no need for it as wages and productivity remain stagnant in economic terms.

Overall, he points out, wages haven't risen much this century, and large corporations are generally doing well.

So there isn't much incentive to spend millions of dollars investing in automation when people are doing the job well enough.

During the industrial revolution, for example, high wages in England caused textile mills to integrate steam engines into the manufacturing process to reduce labour costs over the long term, and increase productivity.

But that pressure isn't there today, and workers aren't as able to organize in unions because the way they were in the 18th century.

Moreover, technology has been a victim of its own success: it's made it possible for companies to outsource their labour to the other side of the world, reducing labour costs further, and creating even less incentive to automate.

However, he believes, like Katy, that eventually automation will win out, and working people will learn to develop new skills that keep them employed.

"I just don't think it's going to happen in the next few years," he says.

Katy acknowledges that students on the cusp of  graduating from high school, are worried about choosing a career that might fall victim to automation.

She suggests that young people stay on top of current technology, and learn the kind of skills that machines won't be able to replace for a long time - like thinking creatively and developing good social skills.

Economist Ryan Avent says the pace of automation is slow right now for a very specific reason. 10:23

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