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How to Not Be Replaced by a Robot at Work

What the future of work looks like and how you can protect your career.

by Anne Gaviola
Dec 13 2018, 8:17pm

Photo via Shutterstock

This article originally appeared on Free CA.

The robots are coming… First, they’ll take our jobs. Then they’ll take over and become our robot overlords. That’s a popular narrative that has been turned into memes and shared online countless times. Fear-mongering aside, this paradigm shift has been described in anecdotes, and stats cobbled together to paint an incomplete picture. No wonder people are scared: we don’t even fully understand the transformation at hand.

What we do know is that some industries have been disrupted and that has changed lives and livelihoods. Experts estimate that one in three jobs will be fully automated by 2030. The jobs that young people will be doing aren’t necessarily like the ones their parents and grandparents were doing. A recent BMO Wealth Management report states that Canada’s “labour market has shifted from one characterized by stable or permanent employment to a ‘gig economy’ of temporary or contracted employment, where an on-demand, freelance or contingent workforce is becoming the norm.”

This seismic shift means young workers are going to have to do things very differently, in terms of planning and budgeting, than generations past. Canadian economist and futurist Linda Nazareth explores what all this means in her book Work is Not a Place: Our Lives and Our Organizations in the Post-Jobs Economy, which is out this week. I spoke with Nazareth about a robot competition, the importance of financial literacy, and thriving in a gig economy.

What is the future or work? Are we going to have robot overlords stealing our jobs?

It took me a long time to write the first part of this book because I had to reconcile two big theories I had. One was that robots are going to take everybody’s job and we would be at the mercy of them. And the second is that demographics mean that workers completely have the power because there’s going to be a shortage of workers. Like, which one is correct because we’ve been hearing both of these? They’re both correct.

For some people, without the right skills, without the right circumstances, yeah, robots are a threat. For other workers though, you’re seeing a lot of things going in their favour. Meaning they will be in demand. We will still need great workers. For the short-term, we won’t have enough workers in some places because of the demographic part of it, the aging population.

What should fields should students look at to robot-proof themselves?

The obvious answer that people expect is you should study STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). There’s no point studying STEM unless that’s what you’re really interested in. I think everyone should understand technology and be conversant and comfortable with it but you can’t force somebody into doing something they’re not into.

I don’t think it matters that much what you study. The skills that people are looking for are soft skills. There are a lot of things that are going to be done by robots or the kind of tech that we haven’t even invented but there are things that human beings can always do.

Managing other people is going to be done by human beings. Communicating one-on-one is going to be done by human beings. Caring, like really caring, not just moving patients from one bed to another, being there for people is going to be done by human beings.

It sounds like you’re saying we have to learn to be a 'bawse,' whether that means managing people or being your own boss.

Yes. The World Economic Forum has a list of skills and they aren’t necessarily technical skills. Critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence.

I don’t think you need to work for a company and the people who do are the ones who have skills like that. If you’re going to manage your own career, which I think will be a lot of people coming in and out of contract jobs and being self-employed, then it’s really important to have a lot of those skills. The other thing to study, for everybody, is personal finance and managing your own business affairs.

In terms of where we are collectively, I think financial literacy right now isn’t where it should be. How much more important will that be in the future?

If you’re going to go through your life and have periods where you’re not in the labour force, you better figure out how to save money. And since you’re not getting a pension, you better figure out how to start putting away money really early. Income volatility is the big issue. We need to start talking about income volatility, even for people making a lot of money.

You may have six months where you’re getting paid pretty well. It may be another four months before the next contract kicks in. Have you figured out how to deal when you have those periods? I use the example of actors in the book. People in creative industries are not always the best at managing their money but a lot of them have learned to live with the fact that it’s not every month that you get paid. Can you get your mind around that?

Your book was made possible by the gig economy.

My editor was in Toronto, I had an index person who was in Vancouver. The first cover was from someone in Nigeria, the second cover, which is the one you see now, is from someone in Northern Ontario. The person from Nigeria was from Fiverr the site. I used Fiverr to find someone in Cameroon to work on my website. I also use freelancers across Canada. It’s not always about cost, though that is a factor. It’s a global talent pool.

I’m a huge proponent of the gig economy. I like it. I like the idea of having different gigs as well as one full-time job. Maybe it’s not for everybody. I think a lot of politicians are really negative on the idea that we have this gig economy but I don’t think we need to be. We just need to have people who know how to navigate it.

You mentioned politicians. Does the policy we have in place do enough to support the changing nature of jobs?

One thing I’d like to see happen is we need to stop talking about ‘jobs’ and we need to start talking about ‘work.’ Because policies are all about jobs. Even our mat leave policies, if you are that gig worker, you’re working for yourself, you’re not getting anything if you have a child.

So Canada’s bragging about our great policies, but they’re not that great for a lot of people. Especially a lot of younger people. So if there’s something we need to push, it’s getting policy makers to understand that it’s not just about jobs and for younger workers, they need to have an agenda that’s about covering them even if they don’t become one of those conventional workers.

Are we doing a good job of measuring, quantifying the new reality of work?

We don’t have great numbers on gig economy or who is earning well in the gig economy in Canada. We’re still figuring that part of it out. Absolutely, we need think about a future where somebody might have two part-time jobs and might have a business on Etsy or Fiverr and might be thinking about the next thing they do and they might go part-time for that and they’re OK. You can’t say ‘well this is a bad situation.’ Maybe it’s different than it was but this is not an economy for complacency.

Can the gig economy be more lucrative?

Lucrative in a monetary sense, maybe, maybe not. But certainly in a lifestyle sense it could be. Think about the old model. Everybody showed up to the same place at the same time every day. It wasn’t good for the environment. It wasn’t even good for your life expectancy. If everyone’s on the highway at the same time, you’re creating a holiday weekend every weekday and people die. In the US, you could reduce the number of traffic deaths significantly if we didn’t all follow that same model.

There’s also life. If you have some flexibility or you have the ability to work from home, maybe that’s something that works for your family in the larger sense. People do that all the time. Maybe you have a corporate job or maybe you cut back to that after having a corporate job for many years. Maybe we need different metrics on how to measure this.

Working remotely was a big thing before the recession, then it fell out of favour, and now it’s back.

Companies are still struggling with this. More and more they’re all over it though. I mean, who wants to pay for real estate that’s really expensive in certain areas. If you can get that cost down, it really makes more sense. But you have this deep distrust that ‘oh, if I let somebody work from home, does that mean they’ll be watching Netflix on my time?’ You have to get over that.

It’s not just about face time and showing up, it’s about who’s actually doing the work. In terms of making this work and the companies that do it successfully, they’re the ones who don’t just let them work from home but also bring people together.

Cheesy as it sounds, is it about creating community?

Sometimes it’s about periodic meetings and rituals. I use the example in the book of the company who has a virtual baby shower where people worked in different parts of the country but they were all on their screens at the same time talking to each other and watching the person open the gifts. They connected that way.

We’re at peak telecommuting now. On a trend basis, we were trending up before the recession, big companies like IBM and Yahoo were all over this. Post recession, a lot of them retreated from it.

Now we’re at a different point, we’re at this kind of sweet spot where workers have a little bit of sway. So I think it will be used to change policies. One great example is where two managers talk to each other every Monday by taking a walk together from different cities. They would each get their phones out, each get their exercise in, and talk about what’s going on in their office. So they had 30 minutes devoted to this while they were out getting some fresh air.

You can look for other creative ways to do that. Let’s find some time where we talk, let’s put it on the calendar, but we don’t actually have to be there together. You can use technology for this.

I worked at a company where one of my colleagues worked remotely from Miami and he was on a robot. We talked on the phone often and were very close. Still are to this day.

So it can work. In Japan—it’s a little bit much for me—but you have these small robots, which are actually a person at home, on a screen. So you have a robot that you put on the conference room table. You can carry them around all day. It’s like a nanny-cam on the worker at home, which I’m not entirely comfortable with.

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