Automation and Work

I recently took two of my grandchildren to a McDonald’s restaurant for some lunch. We were greeted by a young woman with a big smile on her face asking if she could show us how to use the new kiosk to place our order. My first thought is that she must have been instructed by management to so pleasantly offer to help us since this kiosk would probably replace her soon. I hoped she was going off to university at the end of the summer and wouldn’t need this job.

In the weeks that followed, I saw several discussions online about the new McDonald’s kiosks in the US and how increasing minimum wages were to blame as the kiosks take the place of human workers. Theoretically, cashiers will not be needed once kiosk use catches on.

These discussions may be right, but it’s nothing new. Banking is a good example. Decades ago we began using automated tellers (ATMs) to deposit checks and withdraw cash. Now, many of use don’t even use the ATM to make deposits since it can be done with mobile apps. The number of tellers required in the US is expected to decrease by 8% between 2016 and 2026, however, the number of tellers employed hasn’t decreased as much in recent years as one might think as banks have opened new branches and the job of a teller expanded to include more responsibilities.

Automation has affected many occupational areas, especially manufacturing. Robots are used for repetitive or dangerous tasks. A small home can even be built using 3D printing. Another area that might be affected by technology is trucking as autonomous vehicles are perfected, but the same resource listing the drop in jobs for tellers over ten years predicts an increase in demand for truck drivers.

Many technologies have been disruptive throughout history. We don’t see many people driving covered wagons or sweeping chimneys today. To travel across the ocean, we generally fly in a jet. What happened to all those jobs on sailing ships? When there is no need for workers in one area, new opportunities are created in others. (This article lists eleven interesting professions that do not exist today.)

In my early career, 20 years ago, I created macros in WordPerfect for some small law firms to increase their efficiency in creating documents. Secretly, I wondered if the work I was doing would end up costing the jobs of secretaries and paralegals instead of making the staff more productive. I don’t know how that turned out, but I suspect the firms eventually moved on to other tools, and the talented people are still working in some capacity in the legal realm. After that, I stopped being concerned and was happy to help build technology solutions.

While automation is changing many things, it’s probably best not to worry too much about it. There are always problems to solve, and we need new ways to solve them which takes human ingenuity. Even though the advancements of one age replace the tools of the last, we manage to adapt. I am glad, however, to be one of the fortunate people to work in technology. We will be most useful to the robot overlords of the future, and probably the last to be eliminated.

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