The robots are coming for your job—but not all of it
Reports of machines completely replacing New York workers are greatly exaggerated, a think tank's new study argues.
The report by the Center for an Urban Future determined that automation will affect nearly every job in the city in the next few decades—but will only outright erase a few thousand of them. What will save the humans? New York's large number of "social, cognitive and technical" positions, the study found.
Also, robots and computers will only take over specific tasks rather than entire occupations, and their growth will be slowed by financial, political and social pressures. The think tank suggested that the rise of the machines will boost productivity and overall employment, so long as the public and private sectors prepare current and future workers to adapt to the new technologies.
"As has been the case since the Industrial Revolution, certain occupations may shed jobs as machines gain ground, but technology is still anticipated to create more jobs than it displaces," the report reads. "In many cases, automation will require humans to work more closely with machines, rather than be replaced by them."
The study found approximately 456,000 jobs across the city—that is, one in 10—are "highly susceptible to automation," meaning that machines could take over 80% of the tasks associated with them. This category comprises not only fast-food workers and dishwashers, but tens of thousands of bookkeepers and accountants.
But Center for an Urban Future clarified that this does not mean 80% of such positions will disappear, but only that machines will absorb the simpler, more repetitious duties. Humans, meanwhile, will devote greater time and attention to more demanding, knowledge-based aspects of their jobs, including new assignments related to the gadgets in their workplace.
"We're trying hard not to be alarmist. There are lots of people in tech who say this is not like the Agricultural Revolution, this is not like the Industrial Revolution, machines are going to replace everyone," said CUF policy director Matthew Chaban. "That's just not how labor markets work."
The report highlighted the introduction of a computerized customer service system at the Brooklyn-based company Kickstarter, which resulted in "augmentation as much as automation."
"Rather than replacing the hands-on work of the customer support team, the machine-leaning algorithm helps classify queries automatically, allowing the team to focus on more complicated requests while generating faster responses," it reads, noting that the company trained those employees to update and improve the system.
Similarly, machines could also take over one-quarter of the tasks associated with CEO work—but it is highly doubtful that 25% of CEO posts will vanish.
Even jobs with 100% automation potential will likely linger for some time, given the relatively low cost of labor and the high capital investment required for new machinery. Chaban cited garment industry employees, who often work for low wages on ancient equipment, as an example of a group whose jobs could easily be completely mechanized but probably won't be.
"It's still so much cheaper to grab someone off the street and stick them on one of those machines than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the newest automated sewing machine," he said. "No one in the garment industry is going to make that decision."
From a technological perspective, it would be similarly easy for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to automate all of its conductor and operator positions, Chaban suggested. But that would require billions of dollars to strip out the infamously antiquated signal system and swap the current cars for new models, and cause a bitter political fight with the powerful Transport Workers Union.
Meanwhile, the introduction of drones to the Fire Department has actually created new jobs to maintain and operate the machines.
So instead of contemplating an imminent work-less world in which all citizens receive a basic income from the government, the CUF report suggests that New York City has years to invest in training and educating its citizens to prepare for a labor market with fewer rote responsibilities and more skilled work. But schools, colleges, politicians and business leaders should begin that process now, teaching students and employees to work on and with machines, and shepherding them toward the labor gaps of the future.
"It's not a tidal wave, it's not a hurricane sweeping away the city, it's a rising sea level," Chaban said. "We have to build the dams and dikes now."