As business leaders who work with scores of senior leaders across the private and public sectors, the topic of automation and its implications for workers is inescapable—and often anxiety-inducing. Understandably so. Technology and social changes are poised to reshape nearly every aspect of what and how work gets done, and by whom. When we speak and write on this topic, the audience response is usually intense and ranges from excitement to deep anxiety.
Our response to these fears is two-fold.
First, the details matter—a lot. While every industry will likely be impacted, the nature of those impacts may vary considerably. To understand what’s coming, we have to appreciate the make-up of tasks within a job, the demographic factors at play in particular industries and regions, and regulatory or other external “brakes” (particularly social attitudes) that might impede automation. Sweeping generalizations can invariably mislead more than they reveal.
Second, there is a need to confront the issues head-on. Putting our heads in the sand won’t stop the inexorable advancement of technology. So, an approach grounded in facts rather than sensationalism is critical. Neither Pollyanna nor Chicken Little will likely have an accurate picture.
Let’s consider a particular case to illustrate these points. When the media cites professions that may decline because of automation, some of the most common are jobs involving the movement of people and goods—trucking, taxis, ride-sharing, and the like. It often makes for good headlines and everyone “gets it” quickly. But the outlook is way more complicated, nuanced, and not necessarily as dire as portrayed.