Automation, jobs, and the future of work – There’s always painful dislocation

The topic of job displacement has, throughout US history, ignited frustration over automationtechnological advances and their tendency to make traditional jobs obsolete; artisans protested textile mills in the early 19th century, for example…

A conversation

Reid Hoffman: If you look at most of the automation, it comes down to man–machine combinations. And all productivity means is that when you have productivity increases, each person is doing more. And therefore, the unit—the number of people to do this amount of work—goes down, right? But that then creates resources for doing other work. The most simple one was the transformation from an agricultural economy. We used to have a huge percentage—

James Manyika: Forty-one percent of employment, right?

Reid Hoffman: Yes, was making food. And now it’s under 2 percent. What happens with that 40 percent of the population? Well, they go on to other jobs. Now, the reason this topic is urgent is whether exponentiating Moore’s law changes the rule or not. There’s always painful dislocation. Can we make that pain a lot less? Can we make the time cycle shorter?

I want to share one of the things I learned from a recent trip to Shenzhen, because it’s one of the most interesting manufacturing hubs. We went to Huawei. I was expecting, as a Silicon Valley technologist, that it would be a complete line of robots. The whole thing would be automated because that would obviously be the thing to do.

Roughly 60 percent of it was automated and 40 percent of it was still people. And it’s all a question of choice. You say, “is that just because of low cost?” No, no. These are actually high-pay, high-skill jobs. The answer is actually that, in the future, adaptability is key, and people are more adaptable. So when they set up the machine line and it’s all machines, there is a huge amount of retooling to shift from line one to line two, whereas the people are much more easy to shift.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Automation, jobs, and the future of work | McKinsey & Company.

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