Automation anxiety and the future of work

First published in September 2016 by Facilities Management World
Associated Categories Forecasting Tags: , ,
Future of work

Until fairly recently, most of the literature on the future of work was all too familiar: mobile working, working from home, hot-desking, teams, fun interiors to stimulate creativity, etc. In fact many of these ideas were first fielded in the stimulating work of Philip J. Stone and Robert Luchetti, (1) if not in the equally stimulating discussion of ‘adhocracy’ in the late Alvin Toffler. (2)

The basic myth in many contemporary accounts is to believe that workplace layout and facilities, and IT, will determine the future of work. Influential lobbies – designers and architects – like to convince one of this. Even more important, Silicon Valley does the same.

Yet the reality is that it’s human beings that determine life at work, and in that domain – HR, psychology – the changes are much deeper, and much less noticed, than those in IT and space. The 360-degree Appraisal, How to Manage Your Manager, Not Winding Up In Court Because Of Duty-Of-Care Responsibilities, Not Being Seen To Let your Mates Down, Acting Up (But With No Increase in Salary) – these are the really important departures.

I said “until fairly recently”. However, in line with the deterministic outlook mentioned above, the view now is that IT will destroy jobs. The kick-off piece (2013) is by the Oxford Martin Institute, where it was famously suggested that 47 per cent of US jobs were at risk because of automation. (3) Since then (2015), the Institute has teamed up with Citi to say the same will happen in ‘perhaps a decade or two’ or ‘soon’. (4)

The ambiguity is telling. Careful inspection of those papers and others like them (5) shows that the authors understand very little about IT, and still less about ‘intelligence’, the Luddites, etc. For example, they eulogise algorithms as unbiased, forgetting that it takes human beings, with all their biases, to write an algorithm. Nor do they seem to have noticed that unemployment is at very low levels in the US and the UK, as well as in other parts of the Europe.

The main thing to remember is that, in Britain, America and even Germany – as well as India – we have an investment and productivity crisis, not a problem of what John Maynard Keynes termed, in his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), technological unemployment. (6) It is precisely this investment crisis, along with the short-termism that McKinsey calls ‘quarterly capitalism’ (7) and the consequent demand for moment-to-moment agility in corporations, (8) which will ensure a rosy future for staffing firms. Companies will want to stay flexible, keep their cash in the bank, and take on staff only as and when.

Breakthroughs are happening in fields such as Wearables, Big Data and the Internet of Things, Machine Learning, the machine reading of facial expression, Virtual Reality, voice operation, translation, robots and 3D printing. They are not happening in intelligence, and arguably never will do – whatever the wins at games registered by IBM’s Watson and DeepMind’s AlphaGo. For example, construction of the massive datasets of pictures and speech that comprise Machine Learning does not amount to building real intelligence – the sort that can handle non-routine cognitive and manual tasks. Nor can Machine Learning recall episodic memories or do unsupervised learning. (9)

Still, it’s vital to keep track of advances in these smaller fields, both to log the pace of advance and to appreciate the barriers to take-up – whether technical, financial, regulatory or psychological.

Until these breakthroughs take place, and are coordinated in a brilliant manner so as to create whole new industries with great jobs in them, the pattern in the West will be greater labour utilisation, not automation. Increases in female employment, self-employment, EU immigration and working hours are significant trends in the UK, (10) and the addition of older and Hispanic workers is striking in the US. (11) Of course, a President Trump would likely bring a Slump, and, in turn, mass unemployment – but most likely the joblessness created would not be technological unemployment.


Despite the trend toward greater labour utilisation, there’s no need to join the familiar narrative about everyone being stressed out at work, or lacking work-life balance. Rather, the following priorities emerge:

  1. Invest with a cold eye in the very best, productivity-raising capex, facilities and IT. As a percentage of GDP, private fixed investment in information processing equipment and software has fallen in the US – from 4.7 per cent in 2000 to less than 3.5 per cent in 2014, which actually amounts to a drop of 26 per cent. (12) That’s is very worrying.
  2. As far back as 2012, in a 184-page report, McKinsey showed that, applied in the world of business, social media can improve not just communications inside and beyond a company, but also productivity, new product development (NPD) and relationships with customers. (13) Of course, the use of social media doesn’t necessarily lower the load of email. (14)  Nevertheless, failure to invest in IT as part of a wider programme of investment would be a great mistake. Every workplace, for instance, should boast easy use of Wifi and of Skype.
  3. Acknowledge that just as a visit prompts a call, a call prompts a visit – so if IT systems can supplement human contact, they cannot replace it. In particular, what I described 12 years ago as the productivity of the face – its expressiveness, its ability to convey both emotions and the logic of an argument – can work wonder. (15) In this respect, and especially when dealing with new, overseas customers whose English is limited, videoconferencing – including, more’s the pity, Skype – may never quite cut it.
  4. It is fun to speculate about driverless cars – although we can be sure that, if and when they ever arrive, they will no more be driverless cars than today’s cars are horseless carriages. But, staying with transport: though the EU reports that workers in Northern Europe, by contrast with their Eastern and Southern counterparts, are reasonably satisfied with their commuting, (16) the investment crisis applies to commuting. IT will not, as has been imagined since 1976, (17) solve transport problems, and transport already meets with burgeoning demand and increased hassles around security. Everyone thus needs to fight as hard as possible for improvements in transport infrastructure.
  5. Brexit or no Brexit, for Brits work beyond European time zones and beyond European languages will rise as the UK seeks openings in the Americas and Asia. At the same time, migration will not go away – wherever you are, and in particular in sectors such as IT and healthcare. So there’s a need to improve language skills, as well as to cut the red tape that surrounds visa and entry requirements.
  6. Again with a cold eye, avoid psychobabble, mumbo-jumbo about Emotional Leadership, Mindfulness and all the rest. An example: if you’re using them, give up Myers Briggs tests of personality. (18)
  7. Similarly, do not indulge the youth or patronise old people by buying that glib story about ‘digital natives’. (19) Instead, understand that older people bring more than experience to the workplace. They bring curiosity, insights, and, with Google, an awareness of where to look to get the best results.
  8. Understand that the legitimacy crisis that surrounds management isn’t just something that afflicts firms that don’t pay enough wages or taxes. It goes much wider than that. For example: for the average 36-hour week in Britain, the living wage amounts to just £14,000 a year before tax. Therefore it’s vital to try to buoy up wages, as well as to understand real developments on the shop floor by spending time there.

Conclusion: myths and realities

Myths and unjustified fears about IT have eclipsed the realities of – the much more justified worries that should attend – today’s dearth of capital expenditure.

In retrospect anxiety about automation is a kind of displacement activity. We don’t feel good about inequality, the human species, and humanity’s effect on the environment; so, because we feel alienated from our creations in general and IT in particular, we like to blame IT for an Armageddon that exists only in our imaginations, not in reality.

In fact, society needs to invest more and more properly in IT. And by confronting real problems, not imagined ones, it can improve its prestige, and its morale.

References and Footnotes

(1) ‘Your office is where you are’, Harvard Business Review, March/April 1985.

(2) Future Shock, Random House, 1970.

(3) Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, ‘The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?‘, 2013.

(4) Citi Global Perspectives and Solutions, Technology at work: the future of innovation and employment, City GPS, February 2015.

(5) For a critique of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s equally seminal and equally misguided book The second machine age: work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies (2014), see James Woudhuysen, ‘IT’s not the future’, July 2014, http://www.woudhuysen.com/its-not-the-future. For another example of the genre, see Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Tomorrow’s digitally enabled workforce: megatrends and scenarios for jobs and employment in Australia over the coming twenty years, January 2016.

(6) John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Granchildren (1930).

(7) Dominic Barton, ‘Capitalism for the long term’, Harvard Business Review, March 2011

(8) See for example John P Kotter’s snappily titled Accelerate: building strategic agility for a faster-moving world, Harvard Business Review Press, 2014.

(9) Gill A Pratt, ‘Is a Cambrian explosion coming for robotics?’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 29, Number 3, Summer 2015.

(10) Office for National Statistics, ‘UK labour market: July 2016’, July 2016.

(11) Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘Labor force projections to 2024: the labor force is growing, but slowly’, December 2015.

(12) David Autor, ‘Why are there still so many jobs? The history and future of workplace automation’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume 29, Number 3, Summer 2015.

(13) Michael Chui and others, The social economy: unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, McKinsey Global Institute, July 2012.

(14) Philipp Karcher, ‘Reality Check: Enterprise Social Does Not Stem Email Overload’, 31 October 2013.

(15) See James Woudhuysen, ‘Wireless is nothing without The Face’, April 2014.

(16) Eurostat, ‘Quality of life in Europe – facts and views – employment’, data from March 2015.

(17) Jack Nilles and F Roy Carlson Jr, Paul Gray and Gerhard J Hanneman, The telecommunications-transport tradeoff: options for tomorrow, 1976.

(18) For a coruscating critique, see Murad Ahmed, ‘Is Myers-Briggs up to the job?’, Financial Times Magazine, 11 February 2016.

(19) See James Woudhuysen, ‘Digital native? There’s no such thing‘, August 2014.

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