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Automation, ‘technopanic’ and the future of work

Ever since the industrial revolution, the technologies that drive workplaces and cultures around the world have been advancing at an ever-increasing rate. The scale and pace of change in our lifetime – and regular stories about the near imminent replacement of human workers for machines – has led many of us to believe we’ve reached some kind of tipping point in our relationship to technology and employment. But are we overreacting? What does automation really mean for us, and our jobs?

What is automation?

Automation is simply the process of turning a manual, human-driven process into an automatic, machine-driven process. It’s not a new phenomenon; it’s been happening for hundreds of years, and so has the ‘technopanic’ surrounding it.

When the printing press revolutionised publishing in the 15th century, luddites complained that the new technology would not only put church scribes out of work, but that their newfound lack of purpose would make them less devout. And when William Lee invented an automated knitting machine over 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth I denied its patent, citing fear of unemployment and the resulting starvation of her citizens as reason for doing so.

Countless similar situations have occurred as a result of the sawmill, the glass bottle-making machine, the tractor, the automatic telephone switchboard, the computer, and many more. But in all of these cases, the benefits that came from automation led to improved, cheaper products and services. This in turn caused greater demand, resulting in the creation of more jobs than were feared to be lost in the first place. So, while there is a genuine threat to some jobs in the short term – the benefits of automation have consistently created more favourable circumstances for more people, organisations and markets in the long-term.

Is it different this time?

Pasquale Sgro, Professor in Economics at Deakin University, says the biggest difference happening today is the pace and scale with which automation is disrupting more and more industries.

‘The pace has quickened,’ he says. ‘Manual labour will disappear in the future as robots take over most menial tasks.’

That may sound like a worrying statement, but Prof. Sgro is confident that technological change won’t occur for its own sake and that the workforce will be able to adapt to changes in the landscape as it has in the past.

‘We have to rely on the ingenuity of society and the market to generate the employment opportunities which generate the demand to purchase products. It will be pointless having cheaper products if there is insufficient income being generated via employment to purchase these goods and services,’ he says.

The difficulty in predicting automation’s impact on employment lies in the fact that we simply don’t know exactly which jobs will be lost or created as a result of new technologies we are yet to see.

‘There will be specialised technical jobs, but the future of the workforce will predominantly be in knowledge-based roles, that trend is pretty clear,’ Prof. Sgro says.

In fact, a recent report commissioned by Deakin University’s DeakinCo and carried out by Deloitte Access Economics has predicted so-called ‘soft-skill’ intensive jobs will account for 63% of all jobs in 2030, up from 50% in 2000, with automation and artificial intelligence playing a large part in the increase.

Soft skills are attributes that are distinctly human, such as communication skills, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and critical observation. These are less likely to depend on acquired knowledge and are more closely related to inherent personality traits, as well as attitudes and behaviours shaped over a lifetime.

What does this mean for your future?

DeakinCo chief executive Simon Hann says while repetitive tasks involved in many jobs such as accounting, law and administration could be automated in the near future, roles requiring soft skills could not.

‘It’s all about building soft skills so you can move into different jobs. If you have soft skills, you can adapt as jobs evolve,’ he says.

To address this, DeakinCo offers independently verified micro-credentials in areas such as innovation, emotional judgement, digital literacy and global citizenship.

Prof. Sgro agrees that while we are living in an age of unprecedented technological growth, there’s nothing to indicate that what has worked in the past will stop working now. He offers this advice:

‘Continue to accumulate human capital via education and training. It’s worked so far, so why not into the future?’

Want an insight into your own future? Take this quiz to see which of the seven new job clusters you’re best suited to, or learn about potential career options with the Explore tool.  

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Professor Pasquale Sgro
Professor Pasquale Sgro

Head of Department, Economics, Deakin Business School

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Simon Hann
Simon Hann

Chief Executive, DeakinCo

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