Coping with Ever More Jobs Being Lost to Automation

Germanwings suicider/murderer highlights frailties of humans versus machines.

Posted Mar 30, 2015


After the Germanwing's co-pilot's killing of his passengers, CNN did a feature on pilotless airplanes.

Of course, most employees don't kill customers but humans are, well, human. They may have mental or physical illnesses, or simply be subject to human weaknesses: for example, slow learning, a difficult personality, laziness, or watching March Madness or internet shopping on company time.

It's thus not surprising than employers have long looked for opportunities to replace people with automation. And that is accelerating, not only because of technology's progress is accelerating, so is the cost of hiring an American, for example: the Affordable Care Act, paid Family Leave, increased Social Security limits, increased regulations, more Worker Compensation claims and employee lawsuits.

Not long ago, ATMs hadn't replaced tellers, self-checkout hadn't replacement supermarket clerks, and that bastion of interim jobs--baristas, bartenders, and waiters--wasn't threatened by automated versions. Those now all exist. For example, visit an Applebee's or Chili's and your order will be likely taken not by a waiter but the iPad bolted to your table. And soon there will be driverless cars, trucks, buses, and, yes, planes. Indeed, an Oxford University report predicts that, within two decades, 45 percent of all jobs, including many white-collar ones, will be replaced by computerization.

The accelerating replacement of humans by machines helps explain why, despite the ostensibly declining "unemployment rate," the more valid indices of the job market are scary: The labor participation rate is at a 37-year low, the median household income is near recesssion lows, and the use of food stamps is at an all-time high.

How is a person to cope, psychologically and practically?

Coping psychologically

It may help to remember:

  • It's the times. In earlier times, even modestly productive workers had a good shot at a stably decent income.
  • This article's unvarnished presentation of the challenging job market may motivate you to work more diligently to gain skills and search for a good job. To hope that a good job will fall into your lap is ever more magical thinking.
  • A good-paying job is no guarantor of contentment nor does modest income ensure misery. There are many wealthy sad people and many content ones who earn only modest income. Most satisfied people find contentment not in materialism but in relationships, self-expression, and kindness to others.

Coping practically

No magic pills, but these are my best shots:

  • Consider self-employment. Even modestly capable people have a better shot of stably earning a middle-class income from simple self-employment than relying on The Man. Key is to keep it simple. I've written about how in this article.
  • Consider working for the government. It often hires and retains many modest producers and, compliments of the taxpayer, pays them solid wages and gives them excellent benefits, including ample sick days, vacation days, and holidays.
  • Work for an automation/computerization company. While this is bad news for most job seekers, the automation industry is likely to remain robust in good times and bad. Perhaps if you can't beat 'em, should you join 'em?
  • Be a counselor or psychologist. Perhaps reassuring to some readers of Psychology Today, it's difficult to automate psychologists and counselors. Decades ago, they tried with Eliza the Computerized Counselor but she's long been retired and replaced by humans.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.