The conversation about robots replacing people in the workplace seems like it’s been on loop since the last century, but the difference this decade is in the pace of change—far faster than we’ve ever witnessed before with white-collar jobs, not factory work, on the line. The West experienced this in the early 2000s when IT jobs were offshored to India and other parts of Asia. In the last few years, thousands of jobs in the Indian IT sector have been lost to automation, pushing those laid off to form the country’s first union for IT employees. It’s in the services sector that new jobs are being created in India, but the pace of job creation is unlikely to ever match the speed with which digital transformation takes these away.
It is not easy to comprehend this kind of pace because, as economist Richard Baldwin says, we think at “walking-distance speed". In his book, The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work, Baldwin explains that our brains have evolved to understand straight-line growth, gradual increments that eventually got us where we are today. However, digitech growth and, by extension, disruption is a bit like vertical take-off—people know it’s coming but just don’t expect it to be so swift. It is when people are unprepared that anxiety, fear and anger set in to trigger violence, upheaval, and a backlash. The rise of nationalist governments is in part in response to this rapid transformation of the workplace and the feeling of security being eroded. Baldwin warns that the backlash could be destructive if radical transformation is too rapid and communities that feel overwhelmed push back. If blue- and white-collar workers unite to demand equality and job security, an example being the yellow vest protests in France where people across classes made a push for economic justice, the backlash could be massive.
Baldwin describes the meshing of a new form of globalization—where it is about services, not goods—with robotics as globotics, a combination disrupting lives of millions of skilled workers worldwide. It may not be possible to protect jobs as businesses are likely to choose more efficient and effective ways of working. However, governments and businesses must protect workers by creating and implementing policies for them. Conventional solutions of skilling programmes and herding people towards higher education are no longer enough. Solutions will need radical thinking and restructuring existing systems. An example is Denmark’s “flexicurity" policies that combine flexibility in hiring and firing with a safety net of social security and job-search assistance for workers. Another possible solution is universal basic income, an allowance generous enough to offset worries about basic survival yet motivate people to contribute in creative and meaningful ways to society. Businesses need to adapt to include teams of generalists who can direct and work with globots. There will still be jobs for humans: those requiring social intelligence, creativity, innovation, empathy, dealing with uncertainty, and managing many people, all of which AI (artificial intelligence) finds hard to replicate. “Digitech", writes Baldwin, “is replacing people who work with their heads and rewarding those who work with their hearts." Flexibility is essential: A lifetime in one career is no longer real. We face a future of two, maybe three career paths, adapting easily, using head and heart, and working with globots. Governments, business and individuals may not be able to choose the pace of disruption, but we can choose our response to it.