Automation, and the threat of losing your job to it, have always been a fact of life. Over the past few decades we have seen blue-collar work decimated through the application of automation, including but not limited to the deployment of robotics. We’ve also seen significant technological advances in office work, but for the most part white-collar workers have had little to worry about. Until now. The fundamental change is that artificial intelligence (AI) has finally ready for prime-time adoption.
You Need To Worry About Apps, Not Terminators
The good news is that it is highly unlikely that you are going to lose your job to a single AI-based solution. Yes, it is possible for this to happen, in fact it has happened in the past and will continue to happen to a very small percentage of jobs, but this will prove to be rare in practice. The challenge is that what you do is complex and varied, requiring skills and experience that isn’t easy to automate yet. As a result completely replacing your position with a single solution, or even a combination of solutions, isn’t viable. But there are many aspects of your job that can be automated, sometimes fully automated away and sometimes partially automated away. Or, using the current vernacular, augmented away.
AI protagonists, of which I am one, are crystal clear that the main application of AI is to augment people, not to replace them. And this is completely true when you look at things from the point of view of a single app. The issue is that your organization will roll out many AI-based solutions over the next few years, each one of them augmenting part of the overall work process. A few percentage points of productivity improvement here, some improvement over there, some more over there, and suddenly it starts to add up. A single AI app that automates 5% of your job is something to celebrate, not worry about. Ten apps like this, twenty apps like this, or even more is certainly something that should concern you.
In short, the primary risk to your job is a slow death by 1,000 cuts, not a quick death by terminator.
Your Colleagues Will Disappear Gradually, And Then It Will Be Your Turn
The point is that organizations will rollout AI a bit at a time, either as new apps or embedded in existing systems, over a several year period. They will realize the benefits of doing so a bit at a time, some of these benefits will be in the form of increased capability and some in the form of improved productivity. In turn your organization will start to rethink their overall strategy around what they do and how they do it. Because these changes will occur over time in an evolutionary manner, this will enable your organization to be smart about reorganizing their workforce, making small changes gradually as opportunities present themselves.
What will this look like in practice? In some cases people will move into roles where they are more effective at producing value, the direct result of augmentation and a clear fulfillment of the promise of AI. Hopefully that will include you. In other cases jobs will be consolidated, your organization will require few people to achieve the same level of output so will choose to reduce their labor overhead. The easy way to do so will be to not renew consultants and contractors when their work contract comes to an end. Another option is to not replace full-time employees (FTEs) when they leave, or more accurately only hire into critical roles when you cannot find an existing staff member to move into that role.
Given that these changes will be spread out over several years it will be easy to convince yourself that you don’t need to worry. This is similar to being a frog in a pot of water. If you place a frog in boiling water it will jump out because it knows it will die. But if you place a frog in a pot of warm water and then gradually raise the heat it will remain there until it dies because it is unable to perceive the threat until it is too late. This may prove to be the long-term fate of many of today’s white-collar workers.
Demographics Will Slow This For Awhile, But Won’t Prevent It
The good news, at least in the short term, is that in many Western countries demographics are on our side. Baby boomers are retiring from the workforce, but we always knew this would happen. What is unexpected is that we’re also starting to see many “generation X” people in their 50s choosing to retire early, or at reduce how much they work. And sadly we also lost several million people to COVID-19 (and continue to do so). The end result is that many organizations are struggling to find people to fill positions rather than struggling to find positions for their existing people. While this is great for employees in the short term, but I believe this is worrisome for several reasons:
- Times like this never last, and in some industries we’re seeing this now.
- It makes it easy for people to fool themselves into thinking they will be easily able to find work if they need to.
- This motivates organizations to increase the velocity of their automation efforts.
Your Best Bet is to Get Ahead, and Then Stay Ahead, of AI
AI is real and it’s here to stay. It is very likely that aspects of your job will be augmented by AI in the near future. The people who will do well are the ones who get ahead of this trend, who actively look for ways to improve things around them, who actively learn about new technologies, and who actively experiment with new ways of working (WoW). We live in very interesting times, and it’s during such times that opportunities present themselves. Some people will jump at these opportunities while others choose to sit back and enjoy the warming waters.
May the odds be ever in your favour.