Robots and work

Robots and work

by Anne Clerx

Robots will take over 20 million jobs by 2030 Trouw headlined in June 2019.  That same month, the FD wrote: "The robots are really coming" and a few months later the AD said: "In 7 years, more than half of our jobs will be done by robots." 

Is your job taken over by a robot? If we have to believe the newspaper articles, it seems that way. According to Oxford Economics, over the next ten years - as a result of robotization - 20 million jobs (8.5%) will disappear worldwide.   In fact, the World Economic Forum (WEF) expects that in seven years already more than half of the jobs are taken over. 

This trend is already underway. In the past 20 years, 1.7 million employees in production jobs have been replaced by 2.3 million robots. According to the OECD, jobs that require little training are in danger of disappearing altogether.  Research by Deloitte tells us: everything that is routine will be automated. According to the researchers, this concerns about two to three million jobs in the Netherlands. 

More and more companies are therefore investing in robots. In 2018, companies in the US consumer products and food industries bought 48% more robots than a year earlier.  In addition, a robot was built in America that can completely replace a pilot. For example, it could be used on cargo flights, or in war zones.  And the trend is also visible in the Netherlands. For example, Albert Heijn conducted a test with a delivery robot in July 2019. It drives to the right place with the help of cameras and sensors.  In May 2019, a robot performed a complete eye operation at the Rotterdam Eye Hospital , and robots perform nearly all tasks in the FrieslandCampina cheese warehouse in the province of Groningen.  Not to mention robots that keep the elderly or pets company   , assist in the application process   , write articles , sort packages , or do the hundreds of other tasks.

Starship robots deliver packages and meals to companies and campuses. This saves the recipients a lot of time. You can see how this works in this video.

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However, the idea that millions of jobs will disappear must be somewhat nuanced. The aforementioned study by Oxford Economics also shows that robotization will not lead to extreme unemployment. New jobs will be added that do need human powers.  The WEF agrees: around 2022, indeed, about 75 million jobs will be lost due to automation, but 133 million will be added for the same reason. 

Research by McKinsey also shows that employment in the Netherlands will grow until 2030, because digitization also creates jobs.  Research from CPB, Utrecht University and Boston University shows the same. They conclude that job losses in one place can be compensated elsewhere.  Although a large part of the work can be replaced, robotization also creates new work.

This is well illustrated by Japan, one of the most robotized countries in the world.  The unemployment rate is very low here: only 2.2 percent of the Japanese population is unemployed , compared to 3.5 percent in the Netherlands and 14.7 percent in Spain, for example.  (Want to know more about robotization in Japan? This episode of Tegenlicht is worth your while)

Can robots do everything better?

Why is it that in the near future certain work will no longer be performed by humans, but by robots? Robots have several advantages. The tasks they can perform are becoming increasingly complex. In the future, for example, robots should be able to perform operations that are not or hardly possible for doctors.  They can also take over the routine tasks of employees. This ensures that work is performed faster and better.  For example, a robot that picks fruit in orchards can pick as many apples as five to ten human pickers. 

Robots can not only take over routine tasks, but also work that people would rather not perform. The picking robot that is increasingly used in agriculture is a good example. Picking fruit is very labor intensive. The workers from Eastern Europe who are often deployed are coming to the Netherlands less and less, because the salaries in their home country are increasing. In addition, a robot does not get tired and can be used 24 hours a day, in order to replace several human forces.  

However, not all work can be robotized. For example, filling shopping baskets for home delivery at Albert Heijn is still human work: a robot does not see the difference between different products.  People will always be needed in the legal profession, because it involves a lot of creativity.  The hotel industry also thinks that people will always be deployed. After all, hotels can distinguish themselves from platforms such as Airbnb with human contact.  The hotel industry also thinks that people will always be deployed. After all, hotels can distinguish themselves from platforms such as Airbnb with human contact.  Neither can robots be found on the average construction site: they cannot withstand the various weather conditions. In addition, many projects in the construction sector are unique and therefore manual work is always required. 

The downside

Robotization in the workplace therefore creates more jobs, can take over intensive work and routine tasks, and is a solution for shortages and an aging population. But there are also disadvantages. For example, human workers' professional knowledge and skills may be lost.  Wages also hardly rise, partly because companies invest more in software and robots than in people.  

Employees who lose their jobs due to robotization often move on to, for example, the transport, construction or administration industry. Robotization and automation are increasingly being used there. So there is a good chance that these employees will lose their new job as well. 

Moreover, the disadvantages are not evenly distributed. Two groups of workers experience the greatest burden: the less educated and women.

Generally, lower trained personnel have routine work that can be easily automated. They also most often see their wages fall.  The new jobs that are emerging are more often for the higher educated, who therefore have an advantage. 

The proportion of women in health, support and administrative work is 70%. The work in these professions can be easily replaced. In addition, 60% of the work in its place is created in areas where men dominate, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Afraid of robots?

How do people estimate the risks and benefits of robots in the workplace themselves? Research by Protime shows that 29% of the Dutch see robots as competition. For example, they are afraid that they do not have enough technical knowledge to deal with robots. On the other hand, 34% of the Dutch are positive about the arrival of robots, because they could take over time-consuming tasks. 

Indeed, research shows that 47% percent of respondents expect robots to take over much of the jobs. At the same time, almost 83% think that this is not possible in jobs in which emotion, caring and humor are important. 

Talking together

Be that as it may, developments cannot be stopped. According to Tom Ederveen of RobotXperience, a company that deals with robotics in healthcare and education, it is good if society tends to adapt to changing rather than disappearing functions. But if those changing features aren't available? Take self-scanning checkouts and shops without a checkout, for example. That situation sums up the above well. Wouter Kolk, COO at Albert Heijn: “I don't think the cashier will disappear, but we will need less. It is quite difficult to find alternatives for them. (…) We need to discuss this with employees and unions, so that we can work on solutions together. If we are on time, we can absorb the consequences. ”