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April 30, 2021updated 04 May 2021 4:28pm

Covid-19 has exacerbated automation anxiety but fear of machines is nothing new

The prospect of jobs being lost to machines is a common concern in times of hardship. Reskilling and protecting workers can help.

By Cristina Lago

Over a third of British workers think the risk of their job being automated has increased over the past year. History shows this heightened automation anxiety is common in times of hardship such as the Covid-19 pandemic, and many workers hope to reskill so they can apply for tech roles that are likely to provide the backbone of the future economy.

In the UK, 35% of workers polled in a new report by Boston Consulting Group and online job portal TotalJobs reported increased fear of automation, but anxiety is highest in Southeast Asian countries, where more than half of respondents said that technology is a bigger job risk than it was a year ago. Job roles where automation is perceived to pose the biggest threat include finance and auditing and customer service.

Automation anxiety: common at times of economic turbulence

However, fear of automation is not unusual, particularly during periods of turbulence in the labour market, says Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, director of Future of Work at the University of Oxford and author of The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor and Power in the Age of Automation.

Frey uses the example of the first industrial revolution, when many anti-machinery riots took place as machines started taking over human jobs. These riots were particularly common during the years of the continental blockade of the early 19th century, when Napoleon Bonaparte brought a large-scale embargo against British trade in response to the naval blockade of the French coasts by Britain. This disrupted commerce, leaving people with worsening job prospects.

Clearly, it’s worse to lose your job to automation or something else in a period where the labour market is doing poorly.
Dr Carl Benedikt Frey, University of Oxford

“Clearly, it’s worse to lose your job to automation or something else in a period where the labour market is doing poorly simply because there are fewer options for you,” says Dr Frey. “We saw that after World War Two and the Korean War.”

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Automation anxiety also occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when the labour market deteriorated and concerns over machines replacing human jobs became more worrying.

Today, these automation fears have collided with the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. These concerns are particularly acute among workers in the legal, insurance, media and financial institutions.

Those in unskilled and low-income jobs are also more at risk of having their jobs automated, facing what Frey calls “the double whammy of the pandemic and automation”.

“Many of these jobs (cashiers, receptionists, etc.) have been some of the fastest-growing occupations in recent years,” Frey tells Tech Monitor. “But people are increasingly shopping online and as consumer behaviour changes, people will be more willing to interact with self-service checkouts and automation in general. There’s concern over these particular jobs, and rightly so.”

What can be done to placate automation anxiety and secure workers’ futures?

The study shows a strong appetite for retraining, particularly among mid-career workers and those in their twenties and thirties, as a counterbalance to automation. Many are considering retraining to be able to access roles in sectors which are similar to their existing one, such as manual workers becoming technicians, or administrative workers looking into finance or HR positions.

Digital and information technology top the list of potential careers that workers believe retraining can bring new opportunities, likely due to the expanding potential and generally high remuneration for these types of roles. IT and tech staff aiming to retrain are most likely to be looking for consultancy roles or, somewhat ironically, those that involve automation and digitisation.

Kate Kavanagh, co-managing director of recruitment agency The Network and one of the report’s authors, says that employers have a responsibility to think about the future of the workplace and to provide the necessary tools for workers to upskill and retrain.

“I think it’s absolutely critical that businesses think about [upskilling] and that they include it in their employee value proposition,” says Kavanagh. “When candidates now are looking for their next career move, they want to go to a company that’s going to offer them that opportunity, to not only do their job and learn to do their job effectively, but also train them up and improve their skills and allow them to develop within their role within the company.”

Frey is sceptical about the long-term results of reskilling and retraining when it is unclear which jobs will still be around at the end of the pandemic, particularly in sectors that have been severely damaged, such as leisure and tourism.

“The question is then for which types of jobs [should workers reskill and retrain]? And I think the answer to that very much depends on where you are and how the local labour market looks,” says Frey. “The skills required will differ a lot across geographies.”

Frey thinks that efforts should be placed in protecting people rather than jobs. One problem is that some employers are very strong in certain labour markets, which puts them in a strong bargaining position where they can apply downward pressure on workers’ wages because they do not have other employment options. Saving those jobs at all costs, adds Frey, increases the power of those firms. Instead, he suggests investment in a safety net that can take care of people when they struggle to find work and that provides retraining and reskilling to transition into new jobs, something which isn’t available in all economies around the world. “During a pandemic, you don’t want a situation where your health insurance depends on you having a job,” adds Frey. “Decoupling those two is something that I think is particularly important.”

Home page image by Asharkyu/Shutterstock.

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