Don't Hate Robots, They Just Want You To Have A Cooler Job

Technology is indeed eliminating jobs, but mostly routine tasks that young people spurn. It is also giving people a chance to recycle their working selves into something interesting.

Service robot ''L2B2''
Dancing on the job?
Victoria Giarrizzo


BUENOS AIRES — What if the proliferation of robots and progress of automation were good for work, rather a generator of unemployment? Could robots boost job motivation and help create healthier, more attractive jobs?

Since the economist Jeremy Rifkin published The End of Work in 1995, technology has become the bogeyman of employment. Economists, sociologists and politicians have been predicting a future in which technology destroys jobs, with pockets of unemployment spreading around the world.

Certainly, when a factory with 200 workers introduces a machine that can do the work with only 10, then there are suddenly 190 workers too many. But two realities are taking shape that make this situation more positive than negative.

The first is the boredom syndrome, which automation can resolve. Young people are reluctant to perform routine tasks like those needed in many factories or offices. Professions like welders, turners, clerks and drivers are losing appeal, so if robots can do them instead, why not?

This boredom has at least two statistics worth noting. One is an increase in work absenteeism, now being felt in industry and public administration. Small and medium-sized industrial firms say this has become one of their main problems. The Argentine Labor Ministry estimates that 17% of private-sector employees miss work at least one day a month, and almost 20% in industry and construction.

People want to feel truly satisfied by their work

Companies like to attribute this to young people's irresponsibility, lack of commitment or disdain for hard work. Specialists see boredom as the core problem. Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder, experts in behavior at work, coined the word "bore-out" to describe the 15% of clerks who, they found, felt they were wasting their time with mundane tasks at work.

In today's reality, where we spend more time active at work than at home, people want to find a true sense of satisfaction in their work. This is where automation comes in, replacing those who photocopy and pack and carry out numerous other routine tasks young people no longer want to do.

The second indicator of boredom happens in many technical schools, where teenagers are bored by workshops teaching crafts and traditional professions. Teachers complain that pupils are distracted by their phones. But these children grow up with their pocket-sized technologies and many technical schools have yet to include robotics and automation in what their programs.

"Kids are smarter now, even before they come out of your belly," one woman from Buenos Aires said, as she watched her one-year-old grandson playing with a smartphone. Her husband and sons work in construction, but she is already wondering what this young child will do later in life.

The obvious question is what should be done about the jobs replaced by technology. Therein lies the second positive reality: Just as technology eliminates routine jobs, more interesting ones appear: in technological design, programming, innovation or the arts. There are companies hiring creative people, designers, engineers or industrial sociologists, to name a just few, and others need experts with an eye for aesthetics or brain for precision.

According to a survey taken by the Argentinean Movement for Values, Wellbeing and Development, one-third of respondents said their current job reduced their wellbeing, 72% said they wanted to change jobs, 36.6% believed they were overqualified for what they did, and 57.9% were frustrated by their inability to develop their artistic, sporting or entrepreneurial skills. These are precisely the areas where new jobs are emerging. The cultural and tourism sectors, for example, are growing as more people find work and satisfaction there. Clearly, while young people used pursue a degree in order to get a good job, today they study to find work that will make them happy.

You can blame technology for job losses or youngsters for absenteeism, but perhaps this is the rise of a new production model where work is becoming a healthier part of people's lives. Work was always said to be a source of dignity, but in modern society, what dignifies a person is work that is interesting and satisfying.

Machines will replace many professions, certainly, but this has been happening since the first Industrial Revolution, and new jobs have never ceased to emerge. The difference now is in the pace, which creates a need for experts who can think fast and interpret the needs of each generation; and visionaries who can anticipate how to train young people for tomorrow's jobs. We need an education system with flexible curricula that are easily changed, and to put aside fears of high-qualification jobs, since children already have superior technological abilities.

Visionaries and planners therefore emerge as two other specialist professions now in demand, created by a technology that while eliminating some jobs, is creating others that you are more likely to want to have.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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