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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