Dealing With Automation Anxiety

Automation anxiety is real. In a Pew Survey, 72% of Americans reported that they worry about the impact of automation on their jobs. Besides, automation is slowly becoming part of our lives: self-service cashiers in grocery stores, smartphone-enabled banking, robocalls, chatbots, and many other examples. As a basic rule of thumb, any task that is simple and repetitive can be automated.

The benefits for us as consumers are clear: convenience and lower prices. For workers at all levels, the story is altogether different, as many now worry for their livelihood. AI-enabled applications could do the jobs of accountants, lawyers, and managers. Automated robotic arms can replace manual workers, and automated cars can make professional drivers obsolete.

How can this be addressed? Robert E. Litan from the Brookings Institute offers four practical suggestions so governments and leaders can prepare their communities for automation:

  1. Ensure the economy is at full employment – This means keeping unemployment at around 4% or lower. Economies where people who want to work are currently working will be better prepared to absorb the shocks of automation.
  2. Insure wages – Develop an insurance system for displaced workers so they have time to make the transition into new careers. Workers need time to adapt to new circumstances, and it is difficult to do so when they have no safety net to rely on.
  3. Finance lifetime learning – Fund worker loans to educational institutions that offer practical training for jobs in high-demand fields. This is not about pursuing new two- or four-year degrees, but six-month to one-year certificates that can prepare workers for a new career.
  4. Targeted distressed places – Automation impact will be uneven, so governments should focus their efforts in areas of greatest need as opposed to enacting blanket one-size-fits-all policies.

While the suggestions above are intended for governments, much of it can be applied to individuals. In short, individuals seeking to shield themselves from automation impacts should save up, train and learn often, and work with local organizations to help their neighbors. Strong communities are more likely to weather automation shocks.

Furthermore, local efforts should address the non-financial impacts of job displacement. An occupation is much more than a means to financial livelihood; it can be a lifestyle in itself. The loss of an occupation does not affect only one’s pocket, but also one’s identity. These are the complex issues that government involvement alone cannot solve. It is the role of civil society through businesses, churches, and non-profits to tend to the health of their communities, especially when those are affected by drastic disruption.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. Are you afraid your job could be automated?

2. Does your representative have a plan to address automation in your community?

3. How could your community (business, association, faith group) address the challenges of automation?

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