Job-Stealing Robots? Millennials See Hope, Fear in Automation

Cathy Engelbert, CEO at Deloitte 

As the old French adage goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same. But that was before the physical, biological, and digital worlds began merging to give us what I refer to as the “Fusion Revolution,” disrupting whole industries and giving rise to a new mantra—the more things change, the quicker things change. 

Take life sciences. When I began working with the industry, clients didn’t have opportunities to leverage digitized data to quicken the drug discovery process. And it would be years before robots could precisely grip test tubes, vials, and petri dishes to help with sensitive lab tests. That was a human’s job! 

Dramatic shifts in the how and the where of the future of work recently prompted my 15-year-old to ask, “Mom, are robots going to take my job someday?” 

Timely question. Deloitte Global’s latest survey of millennials shows many are asking the same thing. While they recognize the benefits of automation in terms of productivity and economic growth, they also see it providing opportunities for value-added or creative activities, or learning new skills:

•40 percent see automation posing a threat to their jobs;

•44 percent believe there will be less demand for their skills;

•51 percent believe they will have to retrain; and

•53 percent see the workplace becoming more impersonal and less human. Which is news that should make every CEO sit up and take notice, given this generation’s use of social media. 

At Deloitte, we’ve been welcoming millennials into the firm for about 15 years. Millennials (born in the 80s and 90s) are demanding change. At more than 50 percent of the firm, and with more than a quarter in Deloitte management positions, they’re helping us to think differently about how we engage with our workforce and how we can prepare the next generation for the future of work. 

People are the growth engines of business, so wise corporate leaders are asking themselves what is most important to the people they are trying to hire and retain. I think the answer is clear—they want to focus on their strengths, feel their organization has a higher purpose beyond profits, and feel that their well-being is top of their employers’ minds. 

Looking ahead to 2020, there will be five generations in the workforce. We’re focused on the next wave of employees, “digital natives,” who go beyond millennials to include Generation Z (the “centennials”). Which brings me back to my 15-year-old and his question about robots taking his job. 

I told him: “Don’t worry—I’ve never met a machine with courage and empathy.” We’ll still need those in the new economy. To be sure, technology will change what we do. Tasks that are highly manual, routine, and predictable will be automated. 

But jobs are made up of many tasks. So the nature of existing jobs will change, and new careers will be created. As MIT economist David Autor has observed, if you had told an American farmer in 1900 that the coming century would bring a 95 percent reduction in farm employment, it’s a safe bet the farmer would not have predicted we would be developing apps instead. 

So governments, employees, and employers will likely all need to adapt. 

And we should be encouraged that more and more are recognizing this. Research shows that most companies today (77 percent) are planning either to retrain people to use technology, or redesign jobs to better take advantage of human skills. 

I believe that the future of work means cooperation between humans and the robots. Making us, in the words of my teen, “co-bots.” 

Yes, the more things change…



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