In late 2017, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report estimating that the relentless march of automation could eliminate up to 73 million jobs in the U.S. by 2030.
“Automation is certainly a factor in the future of the workforce,” says Elliot Dinkin, president and CEO of human-resource consultancy Cowden Associates Inc. “There are indications, however that its effect on downsizing may be less than what has been predicted. The largest corporate layoffs of this century to date, for example, seem primarily to have been caused not by advanced technology, but by market changes, mergers, and plain old bad business decisions.”
This assessment was echoed by participants in a recent conference on the future of the worker held at the Stanford School of Business. In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau listed 250 separate jobs; of these, the conference noted, only one, that being elevator operator, has been completely eliminated. (And some of the elevator operator’s tasks, like greeting visitors and guiding them to the right office, have been redistributed to receptionists and security guards.) Conferees also pointed out that automation has its limits. Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Tesla Motors, said, “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”
“In the future as in the past, workforce reductions will always be a possibility,” says Dinkin, “In the future as in the past, automation will play a role in these decisions – but only as one of a number of factors, all of which need to be taken into account. What matters is to understand the situation, and to handle it in a manner fair to all parties. In our own business practice, we urge both labor representatives and corporate management to approach workforce decisions with as little passion and as much analysis as possible.”