Our Future Jobs With Robots (Or Lack Thereof)

I was reading this NYT piece about how Swedish workers, at odds with the “dey tuk er jebs!” meme in the US, are welcoming robots.

I loved in particular the words of the Swedish minister for employment and integration, Ylva Johansson. “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”

Hail to that!

Some comments from this reading, and more, below.

1. Factory work is a minority (12 million)

And it was already on the decline. Many media articles focus on factory automation. That’s “only” about 12 million jobs in the US — or 7.5% of 160 million employed civilians (126 million full time, out of a 327 million population).

Industry was first hit mostly by delocalization and outsourcing (many companies going “fab-less” and simply contracting factories like Apple does with Foxconn, or Nike, etc.). Automation might deliver another hit, but the real problem is elsewhere.

2. Drivers (4 million)

In the NYT piece, an operator is controlling a mining robot — video game skills will be handy! — but this type of industry application is still limited. I’d love to have the person’s confidence that “There are so many jobs in this mine that even if this job disappears, they will have another one. The company will take care of us.”. Maybe, maybe not. Economics will prevail.

What’s coming faster is autonomous vehicles, to replace all the professional drivers out there.

Truck driver (this includes delivery people — the category is quite broad) is the most common job in many states, representing 3.5 million workers (you can add about 300,000 taxi drivers and chauffeurs).

The Most Common* Job In Each State 1978–2014 (Source: NPR)

The impact of having them replaced by A.I. will see a more real application of “trickle-down economics” than what the wealthy are supposed to have. Their salaries won’t be spent supporting their families, and living in their cities. Their stops on the road will disappear (robots don’t need snacks, entertainment, etc.).

3. Service jobs automation will have more impact

As aptly pointed out here, the reason truck driver appears to be the most common job is because many service jobs are more segmented. In particular sales jobs.

“Out of 14 million who work in sales, about 8.5 million work in retail, and of those 8.5 million, about 4.5 million are classified as retail salespersons.”

I’ll take the list and see their prospects.

The most common occupations in America:

  • Retail salesperson — 4.5 million — Automated supermarkets (including mobile ones) are coming. One of China’s players, BingoBox, raised almost $100 million and is expanding outside China. That’s not every retail sales but still.
Nobody will judge you when you shop at BingoBox
  • Cashier — 3.3 million — See above.
  • Fast-food prep and service worker — 3.0 million — Robots are coming to do that. From flipping burgers to preparing them, or cooking pizzas.
Robots can be flippant — here, Flippy
  • Office clerk — 2.8 million — this will vary. Software / A.I. will have impact. But also robots.
Relay by Savioke will bring stuff around
  • Registered nurse — 2.7 million — We will likely need more of those.
  • Waiter — 2.4 million — self-service, waiter robots, mobile payment, etc. will probably jeopardize those.
  • Customer-service rep — 2.4 million — this might stick.
  • Manual laborer — 2.3 million — maybe yes, depending.
  • Secretary — 2.2 million — This was the #1 job in the 70s, far from it now.
  • Janitor — 2.1 million — robots are coming for this too.
Avidbots will clean your floors

Amazon often argues that it creates other jobs, but if you account for externalities (all jobs destroyed in various retail businesses by Amazon’s success), the net is certainly negative. It just concentrates a shrinking employment base.

There are still some humans in Amazon warehouses but you’d better chose the right shooting angle
  • Bookkeeper — 1.6 million — Software/A.I. is coming.
  • Heavy-truck driver — 1.6 million — See above.
  • Nursing assistant — 1.4 million — We will likely need more of those.

Destruction and creation of jobs is not new — the power loom destroyed many “cottage industries” (women, who were weaving at home as supplementary income couldn’t compete anymore). What’s new is the speed.

4. Entry-level jobs at risk

Software engineers will probably do fine. The real risk is for people with entry-level jobs. A way to identify those is by looking at the most common jobs of immigrants. If those jobs — generally the most physically taxing — are at risk, what kinds of jobs will the future offer?

Janitors, housekeepers, construction & agricultural workers… are those jobs safe?

Janitors were mentioned above. Agricultural and construction workers will face automation. Cooks and cashiers too. Housekeepers might be replaced by low-cost home security systems.

John Deere acquired AI/ML robotics startup Blue River for over $300M

Home health/personal care aides/nurses, and maybe teachers (?) might be the only categories potentially growing.

What’s Next?

Automation of dirty/dangerous/dull work is a good thing. Most of us don’t miss the times people had to go to the river to fetch water, and the washing machine arguably freed lots of women’s time back in the day.

But where will new jobs come from? Maintaining robots and software? Maybe, but will that employ many? Most of the developed world already employs droves of ‘service laborers’, and even software has low-level contractors in places like UpWork. The level of skill required to maintain a website or wordpress blog is not very high, but still. Will more service jobs be created? Teachers, nurses, coaches, hairdressers, cooks, etc. — to serve those who can afford them?

Last, so far I’m not sold on Universal Basic Income, as I believe most people need more than internal drive to be entrepreneurial or creative. Also, rent will adjust and the UBI people will be pushed farther and farther away, until we’re in weird dystopia like in Soylent Green.

Not sure where we’re going, but those are turbulent times.

Partner @ SOSV — $700m VC fund for Deep Tech (biology, robotics, etc.) | Digital Naturalist | Keynote Speaker | Angel Investor

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