The predictions were scary. Half of the jobs in industrialized countries could, one day, be taken over by robots. What would workers do? How would they earn a living?
In 2018, a taskforce at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out to answer these questions. Over the next two years, more than 20 faculty members and 25 graduate students spread out across the globe, from Scandinavia to Germany, interviewing some 200 companies to try to get a better snapshot of the future of work.
The more pressing threat, the researchers found, was not necessarily the one we’d imagined. Sure, robots and artificial intelligence were becoming more and more capable, but most companies expected the technology to create new and different jobs rather than to reduce their total positions.
The bigger problem is that the U.S. has created “a labor market in which the fruits are so unequally distributed, so skewed towards the top, that the majority of workers have tasted only a tiny morsel of a vast harvest,” the report reads. Real wages haven’t increases much since the 1970s, and most of the increases have been concentrated among White workers.
CNBC spoke with Elisabeth Reynolds, the executive director of MIT’s Work of the Future Task Force, about its new 92-page report on technology and the labor force. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
CNBC: You write that technology isn’t eliminating work, but changing it. What are some of the new jobs that we could see, going into the future, that don’t exist now?
Elisabeth Reynolds: A lot of robotic jobs, whether it’s in manufacturing or logistics. We’ll have a whole new suite of maintenance workers who will work on new autonomous vehicles that are emerging. There will be telehealth administrators that help patients before an appointment, walking them through how the technology works and getting them comfortable with it.
CNBC: For the people who are currently unemployed and considering a career change or soon to be entering the job market, how can they best prepare for these changes and make sure they remain hirable?
ER: What we see changing in terms of demand for workers is a desire to have both some level of comfort with technology, whether that’s data analysis or working with tablets, along with social skills and having a real comfort with human interaction. Some research shows that the social side is actually even more important than the technical side.
CNBC: You guys found that our fear of a robot takeover in the labor market is mostly overblown. Why do you think we’ve overestimated how much technology will displace workers?
ER: The fears of technology today are grounded in very legitimate fears about people’s economic security. For the majority of workers who don’t have a four-year degree, they’ve essentially seen their wages stagnate.
CNBC: Other countries that are also seeing big technological changes don’t have as bad of an issue with wage stagnation, the report says. What is the U.S. getting wrong?
ER: Its labor market institutions and policies are not sufficiently supporting moderate wage workers. The U.S. is woefully behind in terms of providing opportunities for workers to organize. We also have a minimum wage that has not kept up in real terms; it’s the same level today as it was in the 1950s.
CNBC: Why will the technology not be as threatening to workers as we once thought?
ER: While the technology is on the horizon, it’s not coming overnight. It requires some time. And that gives us a chance to adapt from a workforce point of view. We’re also seeing employers pull back and say, ‘Wait a minute, is it really better to replace workers or are we finding technology that actually replaces some tasks, and augments other tasks?’ The change is happening more at the task level than at the job level. There’s a collaborative side of the technology, allowing for that human-robot interaction.
CNBC: What are some of the ways that we can make sure that workers who are displaced by technological change have opportunities to move to new jobs in new industries?
ER: We’re suggesting that people have access to affordable education and training. I think there’s a real opportunity to help transition people and educate workers without four-year degrees. There’s an interesting example out of Michigan right now, in which anybody who was on the frontlines during Covid can attend community college for free. It’s a great, new play on the GI Bill.