I remember when a robot took my first job.
I grew up on a small farm and spent much of my time irrigating the crops. Not to get too technical, but it was all about managing ditches. Water ran from an enormous ditch, the main canal, to progressively smaller channels until eventually ending up in the ditch at the high end of the field.
Then I used my shovel to guide this water downhill through channels by the rows of plants.
OK, maybe not all that technical. But I found this quite satisfying. Mindless and wasteful of water, but satisfying. Like a Zen thing repeated twice a day during the growing season. Guiding water from one set of plants to the next, then moving on to the next field in an endless and inefficient rotation.
Shortly after I left for college, Mom and Dad sold the farm. The new owner upgraded by bulldozing all eleven fields of hay, grain and pasture into a single field. Then he combined our farm with the one next door and planted a single crop…a crop that was irrigated by a solitary, center-pivot sprinkler.
My inefficient Zen meditation was replaced by a mindless robot of sorts, spinning endlessly with little human interaction.
I had become a statistic, a small contributor to the long, downward trend in the U.S. farming population. People living on farms dropped from 90% of all citizens in 1790, to 40% in 1900, to less than 2% today…while becoming so productive that we have more than enough food to feed the entire country and export overseas.
The robots came for my job. They’re coming for yours, too. And sooner than you think.1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
Winners, losers, and tradeoffs
This is not a black-and-white issue; it’s neither all good nor all bad:
For every radiologist who loses her job to a computer algorithm, there will be dozens of rural hospitals that gain world-class diagnoses.
For every driver who loses her job to a self-driving car, there will be hundreds of senior citizens who can remain independent even after they give up their car keys.
For every manufacturing worker who loses his job to an assembly robot, there will be thousands of consumers who have access to cheaper products.
For every loser in the “old” economy (that thing you’re working in now), the tradeoff is that someone else wins in the new economy.
Will you be a winner? Or a loser? It’s worth taking some time to read the tea leaves, so to speak, and start considering your future.How long before a robot takes your job? Someday…but sooner than you think. Click To Tweet
I don’t care about “society.” I care about “you.”
Robots aren’t going to take ALL jobs, at least for a good long while. But they may take yours, which is all I care about.
How concerned should you be? Maybe a lot, maybe not. Maybe something in between.
In the midst of a lot of gloomy predictions (many of which I believe), this article puts a positive spin on the coming robot apocalypse.
I’ll sum it up for you:
- Automation has never reduced overall employment. In fact, it has consistently created more jobs throughout history.
- Even when automation reduced farm employment (my personal victim story), factories picked up the slack.
- We can’t predict how automation will affect employment. A third of new jobs created over the last 25 years didn’t even exist 25 years ago.
But don’t get your hopes up just yet…
For an alternative viewpoint that explains many reasons why this optimistic approach is flawed, Google when will robots take over.
Again, I’ll sum it up for you:
- We’re all screwed.
So, I’m watching these developments closely and keeping an open mind. I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t predict the overall impact on society, but that is not my goal here. I’m only concerned about YOUR job.
Part 1: Background Knowledge
No, you can’t jump straight to the scoring process! What fun is that?
You need a better understanding of all this “robots hate me” hysteria. It’s likely too abstract for you right now, and it needs to be personal.
Let’s start with a few definitions.
I’m using the word “robot” as a catchall phrase that makes for a catchy, semi-click-baity title.3 But I’m not talking about this guy:
You may one day have a robot butler to hold your pants while you get dressed, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that item. No, I’m using robots as a stand-in for all types of automation:
- Industrial robotic welders on assembly lines
- Automatic controls
- Drones of any size
- Software programs and algorithms
- 3-D printers
Basically, any machine or thing that can take the place of human labor, attention, thinking, and ingenuity.
Robots are sneaky! An example
I included 3-D printers in the list above for a reason. On the surface, they don’t seem to be very robotic at all, according to my definition. But when a small 3-D printer creates a complicated, custom, replacement part for a broken machine, it does so at the expense of a skilled craftsman.
When a large 3-D printer generates an entire building, it does so at the expense of a small army of highly-skilled construction workers. These workers are replaced by a few semi-skilled people who only know how to erect pre-fabricated walls.
Video: Printing the future of home construction
1 minute, 30 seconds
The effect is almost like an actual, walking, talking robot showing up and doing the work. But the robot (automation) in this case is almost hidden in the background. The effects are not hidden, however, and have significant consequences for us flesh-based beings.
As I said: robots are sneaky.
A 3D printer produces a visual example of the impact of robots. But your biggest enemy is actually right in front of you.
Part 2: Why no job is safe – including yours
Let’s walk through a few of the common factors that influence your continued employment. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will begin to illustrate the risks you are facing.
“No computer can do my job.”
Quite possibly correct. But let me rephrase that for you:
“No computer can do my entire job.”
And therein lies the first danger to your job. A robot doesn’t have to do your entire job exactly the way you do it. Computers chip away at job duties, automating them away in bits and pieces. Over time, the parts that are resistant to automation are aggregated into fewer and fewer positions, until the originating jobs fade away.
First, it auto-corrects your spelling. Then it creates a table of contents and an index for you. Before you know it, it’s writing entire articles.
In general, the more specific your job is – the fewer parts there are to split off – the closer it is to being automated away.
You may be able to observe this trend in your own career. Looking to the past, practitioners of your job were likely generalists doing multiple tasks. Now your field comprises specialists who focus on the most-difficult issues, with lower-skilled tiers that handle routine tasks.
This pattern of increasing segmentation and specialization ends with robots (in the form of automatic processes and computer programs) eventually doing it all.
But job losses start long before the curtain finally falls.
As jobs segment into bundles of tasks accomplished by multiple, specialized workers, some people find that they lose their lucrative careers long before they actually lose their jobs.
This happens as jobs stop paying good wages or salaries. The more specialized a task, the lower-skilled a worker can be, and the easier it is to train a replacement.
The closer workers become to commodity replacement parts, the less their labor is worth to an employer.
I’m quite familiar with the insurance claims industry. There was a time when insurance adjusters worked on every kind of claim, from house fires to auto accidents to slip and falls. When I started in the industry, way back in 1991, the specialization had already begun, but I still did a lot, including:
- Both personal and commercial liability of all types
- Medical payments
- Total loss car settlements
- Rental car arrangements
The first split was separating personal from commercial handling. Over the years, all the other items listed above peeled away to specialists until a claim was handled by a bundle of different people.
And what happened to wages? The sub-tasks were accomplished by narrowly-skilled people, most of whom were paid less than the jack-of-nearly-all-trades I had been in the past. That’s what I’m calling “job degradation.”
Eventually, parts of those sub-tasks went to outside vendors or contractors, then – inevitably – the computers started taking over from them.
Financial analysts and stock traders could tell the same story. As could travel agents and a host of others. What were once highly-skilled, well-compensated positions segmented, withered, automated, then began to fade away.
This process of segmenting and degrading jobs is driven by factors that are far outside of your control. Unless, of course, you’re the big boss. In which case, you’ll be the one driving the job-destruction train.
Competition and profits
Never forget that the most expensive component of any operation is almost always the humans involved. Companies face tremendous pressures to maintain profitability; no company can afford to keep people employed out of sentimentality. So, once the dominos of automation begin to fall across an industry, your own company will be forced to increase automation to survive.
These things often happen gradually, but sometimes they occur suddenly when an industry reaches a tipping point. When armies of consultants begin marching through one company after another, selling the same prescription under slightly different names, then you know a reorganization is not far off. It’s the rare reorganization that doesn’t squeeze a department or two out into the cold, hard world of unemployment.
Your company’s drive toward automation due to competition is distressing. But smart and forewarned person that you are, you could, in theory, still land on your feet by continually jockeying for the remaining positions.
But it gets worse.
It would be better for you if all the competition was confined to your own industry. But there are forces outside your industry that neither you nor your employer has any control over, and these forces can reshape entire lines of work. It’s all about what I call dependencies.
I saved the biggest risk to front-line jobs for last. The items above…
- Skill segmentation
- Job degradation
- Competition and profits
…make intuitive sense; you can wrap your mind around them and consider how your job could be affected. You can even make plans to be the last person laid off by carefully navigating between jobs as your company specializes and/or downsizes. Or, at least you can imagine that you will be this agile (and lucky).
But this focus on what you’re familiar with blinds you to the biggest risk: that what happens in industries you know nothing about can start the dominoes falling toward your position. An example will illustrate this.
Smart cars are already starting to kill jobs
Self-driving cars will eliminate the need for drivers, right? It’s easy to extrapolate how many drivers will no longer have jobs. But how many other jobs will automating cars eradicate?
Consider that cars with cameras and other road-monitoring technology don’t run into each other. This technology is already common, even though we are years away from widespread use of driverless cars. So, what happens when the number-one type of accident, rear-enders, no longer occur because cars automatically apply the brakes even if you are texting when you should be looking ahead?
This is what happens: dependent jobs start to disappear:
- Tow truck drivers
- Body shop workers
- Bumper manufacturers
- Rental car company workers
And that’s just related to the physical damage no longer being inflicted on the sheet metal. What about the injuries such as whiplash that no longer occur? Again, dependent jobs start to disappear:
- Ambulance drivers
- Emergency room staff
- Personal injury attorneys
- Chiropractors and physical therapists
And related to both physical damage and bodily injury, the claims adjusters I mentioned earlier.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 6 million car accidents occur in the U.S. each year. 40% of them are rear-enders, which equals 2.5 million. Rear-end accidents will be the first to go. As more and more cars on the road have anti-collision technology, this type of accident will just fade away.
Automating safety saves lives, but it will cause job losses, too.
I illustrate job dependencies in this video.
Video: Job dependencies and automation
5 minutes, 12 seconds | subtitles available
I hope I’ve made my point that the control that you imagine you have over your continued employability in the face of automation is an illusion.
It’s time to bring this closer to home. You are ready now to score your own job to get a ballpark figure on your danger of being roboticized.
Part 3: Your Personal “Robot Apocalypse Timeline” Score
Yep: your personal R.A.T. score.
Here you are:
…comfortable in your familiar maze, secure in the knowledge that you alone know how to navigate the twists and turns of your job. You are a well-trained
rat employee with a sweet pellet dispenser paycheck. And just over the wall, getting closer every day, is your worst nightmare: a better version of you, able to work 24/7 without gossiping, without Facebooking, and without your occasionally-bad attitude.
How the RAT score works
It’s simple: when complete, your cumulative score will correspond to a risk category for job loss. Again: not all jobs in your industry…just your job. The higher your score, the higher your risk
I realize that I’m making some pretty bold predictions here. But what the heck! Remember that I’m not a job expert of any sort, just a person who thinks about these things a lot. The process should at least get you thinking about your future, even if it’s not all that accurate.
Let’s get started.
Part 4: Scoring your job
These questions get to the fundamental nature of your job, rather than covering every single influence on your future career.
It’s just four questions that should apply to nearly any job in the world. They probably won’t be the questions you’re expecting. What it lacks in nuance, it makes up for in directness.
Note: Don’t make this an exercise in self-deception. Honesty of the brutal sort is required.
Let’s go. Add up your score for each question.
How much time do you personally waste each day?
Now that’s a funny question to start with, isn’t it? Not really, if you think about it: the less actual work you do, the less there is to automate.
Remember what I just said about being honest. Now, imagine you arrive at work, and there’s a stranger in a mask waiting for you. He doesn’t have a gun. Instead, he has a much more powerful weapon: information.
“Good morning. I have access to ALL information in your online life. I have programmed a computer to release one random, embarrassing detail from your personal life to all your social media contacts, your family, and every employee in your company every fifteen minutes.
“These details will be drawn from your private files and photos, those instant messages you thought had disappeared when you closed the app, and the vast storehouse of facts that Google knows about your search history, and thus your life.
“One super-embarrassing detail every fifteen minutes until you finish every critical task required for your job today. The first detail is going out…now.”
How long would it take you, working at a feverish pace, to push your chair back and shout:
“I’m done! For the love of God, stop before my life is completely ruined!”
Critical tasks = work that has an impact. For example, just because you write a ten-page report doesn’t mean it’s a critical task. If only the first page of that report ever gets read, then writing the page-one summary is the only critical aspect; the other 90% of that task is a waste.
Here’s another way of stating this:
“What percentage of your job is effective, and what percentage is pointless?”
You need to think carefully about this one because it’s not easy to admit. And you non-computer-jockey types aren’t off the hook; just because you’re working with your hands doesn’t mean your day is filled with useful action.
➤ 100% of my time at work, every freakin’ moment, is effective (I’m doubting this, but whatever) +5
➤ 75% effective work, 25% dealing with the daily drama +4
➤ 50% of my time at work is effective, 50% is me cleaning up the mistakes of my co-workers (plus some drama) +3
➤ 25% of my time is probably effective, but it’s hard to tell since management is so clueless that my entire job may actually be pointless +2
➤ My job is 10% real work and 90% Facebook, monitoring sports scores, and online shopping. And my boss doesn’t even notice. +1
Would anyone be IMMEDIATELY and SIGNIFICANTLY impacted if everyone in your profession didn’t show up for work today?
And I mean someone would be in dire straits without you. As in:
- Bedridden patients whose home health aides don’t show up to help with hygiene.
- Students whose teachers take the day off.
- Homeowners trapped in their burning building when firefighters don’t answer calls.
Let’s be honest: every accountant, financial advisor, and attorney in the world could take the day off and nobody would suffer. People would be inconvenienced, sure, but a quick reschedule and they’d be back on track.
The same is even true for many manufacturing jobs. What would happen if not a single car was made in the world today? A significant financial impact on car companies, yes, but actual, on-the-street humans? No impact at all.
Pilots are somewhere in the middle. Most people wouldn’t be in dire straits if they couldn’t get on a plane or helicopter, but trauma patients and organ transplant recipients would pay the price.
➤ People would die, for certain. +5
➤ People might die +4
➤ Things could get dicey for some people, but they’d hang on until we got back +3
➤ People might actually enjoy a day without people in my profession +2
➤ We could all take a week off and no one would even notice +1
How easy is it to describe all the tasks in your job?
The simpler and narrower a job – the easier it is to document how to do it – the easier it is to program a robot of some sort to do it.
The first step of programming is to clearly define what must to be accomplished. So, if your job is documented in this way, it’s already undergone that first step.
And don’t forget the “nibbling away” aspect of automation; if parts of your job routines are set in stone, those parts can (and will) be automated, leaving you with less to do. Leading eventually to job consolidation as fewer people do the work of many.
➤ My job changes so much from day to day that that no one even tries to define what I do. +5
➤ There’s documentation of most of what I do, but it’s out-of-date. +4
➤ About half of what I do is well-documented, and the process rarely changes. +3
➤ At least 90% of my job is well-defined, but you’ve got to know a few insider tricks. +2
➤ My job is basically a cookbook. Almost any idiot could follow the recipe. +1
How long would it take someone watching you to figure out how to do most of your job?
This one is related to question three, but gets at it from a different angle, just in case some of you “my job can’t be documented” people were getting cocky.
Whether your job is well-documented or not, it may not be all that hard to figure out. If a human can watch you and learn how to do it without any other instructions, then a computer can do the same thing.
Anytime a computer can analyze gazillions of related tasks, it can figure out the patterns. Maybe not all of them, but enough to take over much of the work.
➤ People would be lost if they watched me. My job is like some sort of mystical process. +5
➤ Assuming you’re pretty smart, you could figure out most of what I do in about a month. +4
➤ If you paid attention and watched me for a week, and could ask a few questions of coworkers, customers would hardly notice. +3
➤ If you watched me for a week and didn’t die of boredom, you’d be fine. +2
➤ If you watched me for a day, you could be my boss. +1
That’s all the questions. Are you ready to learn your fate?
Part 5: What your RAT score means for your future
The moment of truth has arrived.
And, guess what? I kind of tricked you. Your personal Robot Apocalypse Timeline (RAT) score is actually the number of years until a robot comes a-knockin’ at your door.
In case that’s not clear enough, I’m providing some helpful descriptions of your current situation.
16 to 20
Assuming you’ve been honest with the scoring, you’ll make it to retirement. Yay! Oh, hold it, what? You aren’t within 16 years of retirement? Well, shoot. But there is time to prepare. I’m sorry you thought you were safe by answering all +5’s, but you didn’t really think you were such a special snowflake that the robots would never come for you…did you?
Consider how much change your industry has seen in the last 20 years, then multiply the rate of change by two and project that forward into the next 20 years.
As any Terminator fan could tell you, no one escapes the apocalypse.
11 to 15
Remember how long it took time to pass when you were a kid? How a school year seemed like forever? And how time sped up the older you got until a year is like, nothing? That’s how the next decade is going to pass for you.
5 to 10
Look around at your coworkers. You’re actually on the set of Survivor: The Office and these people are your competitors, with whom you’ll be fighting over the last remaining job just like you fight over the last donut in the break room. Get your game face on.
1 to 4
Are you still employed at this moment? Or has your job disappeared while you were wasting time at work reading this?
And for you visual learners:
So, what can you do to prepare? Can you do anything? I think so…although with this advice, I’m definitely heading into uncharted waters.We all know that the robots are coming for our jobs. But when will they come for YOUR job? Click To Tweet
Part 6: Preparing for your personal robot apocalypse
The following advice is about as valid as any parting instructions mapmakers gave to Magellan before he set out to circumnavigate the world:
Possibly helpful until you get over the horizon, rapidly diminishing in value the farther into the unknown you go.
So, a big grain of salt is called for. Just being honest.
Getting your head in the game
Awareness: Know the scope of the issue
Hopefully, this article has helped with that. If not, there’s nothing else I can do for you.
Intelligence: keep track of the enemy
Are you laboring away at your job with no idea at all about the larger trends in your industry? Bad idea. Subscribe to at least one industry resource and read their articles regularly.
Determination: refuse to play the victim
No one – no one at all – is going to make it their mission to take care of you when your job starts dwindling away.
Delaying the inevitable
Become a robot expert
When you see automation creeping in, learn to master it. Be the person who knows all about the new system and how to make it do its thing.
Cross-train outside your area of expertise
Be on cross-functional teams, so you have avenues that are open to different jobs.
Score other jobs using the ideas in this article before jumping to them.
Climb the ladder carefully
Don’t commit to managing people whose jobs are going to disappear.
It all comes down to money, doesn’t it? How long can you go without a paycheck? Don’t guess, do the calculations:
• Critical monthly family expenses
• Amount you currently have in savings
• Amount you can expect from any layoff package
• Amount you can expect from unemployment
Now do the math:
• How many months can you go if you and/or your partner is no longer employed?
• Are you comfortable with that?
• How much more do you need in savings to feel comfortable?
Tackle it from both ends: savings and expense/debt reduction.
Learning from the robots
I’ll leave you with my most important advice, and it’s this:
You are not your job.
As difficult as the financial impact of job loss can be, the worst aspect for many (most?) people is their loss of identity from becoming unemployed.
I once read a story about an engineer caught up in the massive aerospace industry layoffs in southern California in the early 1990’s.4
When he got his layoff notice, he refused to attend any outplacement meetings and just kept working. On his last day, he showed up and kept working. He came the day after that, so they took all his work away. He turned up the day after that, so they removed his desk. Ultimately, he had to be forcibly removed from the premises.
This is a tragedy, the equivalent of me continuing to scrape out ditches on my farm as the center pivot sprinkler rotated resolutely overhead. I personalize this concept for you in this audio segment:
So my final advice is actually counterintuitive: become a bit more robotic about your job.
Robots don’t care about their jobs. To them, a job is just a bundle of tasks to complete. I don’t advocate an entirely mechanical approach to your work, but maybe adjust where you are on this scale:
This has been a long read, and a lot to think about. Never has my standard, final advice been more appropriate:
Until next time…remember the OverExamined Life motto: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.