Article (January-2019)


Building a fearless humanity when robots take jobs

Aman Tanna

Designation : -   PGDM - Human Resource Management

Organization : -  XLRI - Xavier School of Management (Jamshedpur)


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Changes in technology have always been accompanied by changes in the organization of work, the content of jobs and the drivers of growth. Researchers Osborne and Frey presented a paper titled The Future of Unemployment wherein they estimated the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and inferred that 47% of the total US employment was at risk. With such a large scale change in the organization of work, the onus would be on the Human Resource professionals of various organizations to facilitate this transition as smoothly as possible. Although HR professionals will be better equipped to take up this role, anyone who thoroughly understands the fundamentals of economic - value creation and the intricacies of human psychology shall be able to contribute meaningfully to other individuals, communities and governments.

Contribution to individuals

With employees spending around 50 hours each week at their jobs, which may be higher than what they spend with their loved ones, their response to the "loss of job" shouldn't be essentially different from that of the "loss of a loved one". People affected by automation may go through the same stages of grief as predicted by the Kubler-Ross Model for the loss of a loved one.
  • Denial of the ability of AI to actually replace jobs or believing that just because humans created machines, machines cannot replace any jobs.
  • Anger directed towards their organizations for disregarding their loyalty or toward the governments for not intervening to save their jobs.
  • Bargaining with the government to make firing laws more stringent or to be their employer of last resort.
  • Depression resulting from the perceived absence of control over the course of their lives or over the job market.
  • Acceptance of the capabilities of upcoming technologies and embracing the new reality as the permanent reality.
A major challenge for HR professionals would be to change how people perceive their "work". People derive meaning from their work and an instance of job loss can translate into a loss of identity. An important breakthrough can be made if people start defining work as a set of actions that add value rather than tasks and activities that we have to do or like to do.

Contribution to communities

With increasing number of people becoming a part of a burgeoning segment of the workforce loosely known as the gig economy, we would need HR professionals to help communities in overhauling their mental models and in addressing myths that deter them from embracing change.
Myth 1 : Computerized Jobs mean unemployed people

It is important to understand that "All jobs of telemarketers will vanish!" is certainly different from "All telemarketers will be unemployed!" Those prone to computerization, like travel agents of the 20th century, will certainly find new ways of creating value for the society.

Myth 2 : Economic growth means more jobs

The aim of any business is not employment creation. More employment can only be a by-product rather than an outcome of a growing business because the number of people employed for work isn't a metric for measuring the success of a business. The metric is whether it generates value for the society.

Myth 3 : End of work means end of life

To some the occupations they pursue or the work they do is what gives them meaning in life. Automation doesn't mean that we cannot do work that gives meaning to our lives; it just means we won't get paid for it. Well, starving artists have been around long before Artificial Intelligence.

Contribution to Governments

Since people react and adapt either in response to a change or in an expectation of a change in environment, and since the governments are the most powerful controllers (or dampeners) of our social and economic environment, it makes their role all the more important.

It's not uncommon for people to seek the government's help whenever they are threatened with unemployment. The government responds by bringing in regulations that make it difficult to fire the employees thus providing a "cushioning effect" against the changing environment i.e. insulating us from the socio-cultural and economic shocks of change.

The harm caused by such short-sighted regulations, that create barriers for the employers to fire less valuable employees, is two-fold. Firstly, they hinder the employers from hiring new employees who can create more value than the incumbents. This means that valuable human resource has to stay out of work only because of government regulations in spite of the employers' willingness to hire them. Secondly, the incumbents do not feel the necessity to improve or change themselves. Since this cushioning is only temporary, they face a shock of higher intensity when they finally have to leave the workforce.

The catch

The catch in this line of thinking is that this inevitable transition could be made possible, without a major social or economic crisis, only if HR professionals keep assessing their own jobs from time to time in order to ensure that they really add value.

And the biggest takeaway from this would be that we still have time. Although the progress in artificial intelligence has started to affect the kind of jobs we do and the way we do them, we still have time to decide how we move ahead. We can either try to compete with these intelligent programs in routine jobs that add nominal value or we can try to learn skills that add real value. We need to move to jobs that take thought and emotions both as input; we need more recreational therapists, mental health counsellors, dance choreographers, designers, filmmakers, curators and yes, more value-adding HR professionals.