In Roald Dahl’s delightful book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s – the protagonist’s – father loses his job (of adding lids to toothpaste tubes) when the owner brings in machines to do the job. The workers are asked to leave and their lives plunge into poverty.
And that’s the general perception around automation – that it impoverishes workers, benefits businesses and takes away jobs. The truth, however, is not that straightforward.
Historically automation has had mixed receptions – depending on which side of the fence the people are on. Businesses have traditionally welcomed it. Workers have not. Today, as COVID accelerates automation, the debate has rekindled – will automation take away more jobs that it will create.
The answer is a complicated one. Automation will (already has) definitely take away jobs, especially the laborious, repetitive ones which employ millions of workers across sectors – think tollbooth operations, manufacturing units, cleaning, nursing, and even office jobs such as administrative support workers, telemarketers and insurance claims – it’s all being automated as we speak. But, that’s not all. While traditionally automation replaced jobs of lower skilled workers, now its making inroads into areas that were thought of as automation-proof, so to speak.
Microsoft’s move to fire dozens of journalists recently is a case in point. It let go of people responsible for curating and editing articles for the MSN website. The plan is to replace them with automated systems that will curate and select news stories. So yes, it’s not about a certain income group anymore – though the lower income earners may still be the worst impacted.
And here’s the interesting point – although Microsoft said that there was no connection between its decision to let go of its people and COVID, the fact that it happened after the pandemic hit was not a coincidence. True, that the change may have been coning anyway, but COVID definitely accelerated it.