Coping with obsolescence
Mass, robot-induced obsolescence may not yet have befallen humanity, but lay-offs are hardly a new phenomenon. History is littered with examples of people struggling to cope after finding their services no longer required, offering some clues about the challenges in store — and strategies for managing them.
That includes recent history, explains Dawn Norris, associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and author of the book Job Loss, Identity and Mental Health. Norris’ study of the psychological battles of US professionals made redundant during the Great Recession has convinced her that society needs to manage advances in AI carefully if we are to avoid widespread mental health problems.
A key issue, says Norris, is how bound up with our sense of identity paid work is. Take it away and we become vulnerable to various forms of mental distress. Many of the participants in her study reported anxiety, depression and other problems linked to the blow they had taken to their sense of self, she says. “When I asked what the hardest part of job loss was, almost half told me it was their loss of identity. They said, ‘I don’t know who I am any more’.”
If entire professions were to be displaced by robots, the identity crisis could be particularly acute, says Norris, since there would be no obvious remedy. An effective coping mechanism she observed during the recession was for people to find ways of using their professional skills in the short term while they waited for new paid work. A former banking vice-president, for example, found solace in voluntary accounting for his church. But if your skills are simply obsolete, how to cope then?
Part of the answer may come from sharing lessons between cultures, says Ofer Sharone, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts. “When you’re looking at automation replacing jobs … I think that societies are differently positioned in their capacity to support people through that transition,”he says.
This view is informed by Sharone’s own comparative research into the experiences of laid-off tech workers in San Francisco and Tel Aviv. This revealed significant differences in US and Israeli responses to unemployment, with implications, he says, for their ability to deal with the fallout.
Like Norris, Sharone found high levels of self-blame among his American subjects, even in the context of wider market shifts, something he ascribes to the “insidious” message sent out by US self-help culture that individuals just need to take control of their lives to succeed. In Israel, where workforce support is less focused on individual responsibility than market analysis, people were more likely to blame the system, he says. While the US professionals were prone to depression and anxiety, the Israelis were more likely to feel angry and betrayed — a form of mental anguish also, but one that allows for greater resilience, suggests Sharone.
“If you think the issue is about the market and it’s external to you it’s not as debilitating,” he says. “You are able to make adjustments. Maybe you’ll try to apply for a new kind of job, or retrain. The difficulty with thinking it’s about you is that that seems unchangeable.”
There are concrete lessons here for how societies can deal with growing numbers of long-term unemployed, says Sharone, who has been working with career coaches in Boston to put these lessons into action at a local level. For one, they’ve ditched the relentless messaging about positive thinking and seizing control in favour of clear facts and figures about the obstacles people face and market conditions. Armed with knowledge, says Sharone, people are better positioned to think strategically about jobs.
Sharone is not alone in advocating an information-based approach to helping humans muddle along with robots. In September, UK innovation agency Nesta released a report on the outlook for skills and employment in 2030 — itself produced in part by machine learning — which provides a granular view of the future for different sectors, and is intended for use by “educators, businesses and governments for strategic and policy-making purposes”.
The report’s sanguine message is that automation will not be a story of obliteration, but adjustment. Some professions, including design and engineering, are strongly complemented by digital technology and will thrive in coming decades, while others, like financial specialisms, will fare less well. Rather than panicking about robots, we should be rationally preparing the workforce for a different skills landscape.
The keep-calm-and-adapt approach is as much grounded in history as future-gazing, explains Harry Armstrong, head of futures at Nesta. Society is stuck in a cycle where every few decades we have “exactly the same conversation” about automation, with dire predictions about mass unemployment that never come to pass, he says. “Partly because it’s such an exciting idea, being able to capture something innately human in something artificial, it captures people’s imaginations and they kind of run with it.”
In fact, workplace evolution is almost always more gradual, he says: “With some occupations you get complete disruption, but that’s pretty rare. What normally happens is you’re getting tasks or aspects of jobs disappearing or shifting into other places … and the occupation then adapts to that, so it takes on other tasks, or it morphs and combines itself with another occupation. It’s only after a period of time that you see there’s been a bigger change.”
The argument that “this time is different” gets short shrift from Armstrong. Apparently people always say that too.