A middle-aged man, holding a tool from the machine shop, looking forlorn and wistful. That’s what we might call the stock image of automation fears. It’s the picture that graces the news story about grim job-loss forecasts or think pieces about whether the robots are ‘coming for our jobs.’ (It’s either that or a menacing android.) This is who the robot threatens, who is afraid of the robot: older, semi-skilled, probably uneducated men in the manufacturing industries.
Except it’s not exactly true: Just about everyone, it turns out, is afraid that automation is going to erase their jobs, even the youngest, most starry-eyed among us. Studies have shown that automation has impacted some of the youngest members of the workforce the most, and a new bit of market research reveals that so-called Generation Z is already plenty worried about the phenomenon.
A survey of 500 18- to 23-year-olds conducted by Lucid Research found that the majority (57 per cent) are worried automation will negatively impact their jobs, and about a quarter (23 per cent) of them said that they were seriously concerned about the prospect. (As always, take this market research with a big old grain of salt—the firm that commissioned the study is Nintex, a “provider of workflow automation solutions,” and one of its suggestions in response to the data is that its prospective clients “build an empowerment narrative around AI and automation.”)
A lot of people tend to assume—and certainly sellers of enterprise automation tools hope—that young people would be more open to automation in the workplace, digital natives and brave-new-worlders as they are.
Other research supports the notion that Gen-Zers are nonetheless worried companies will deploy automation to erode their job security: A recent Indeed survey of 2,000 workers also found that young adults were worried about automation (though not as much as those aged 25 and up). Previous Pew Research has found that after automation hit younger workers, they became (quite understandably) pessimistic about technology in general.
Survey after survey also shows that Gen Z is also more likely to be sceptical of capitalism—wherein technical automation must ultimately be adopted to maximise efficiencies and minimise labour costs—and perhaps able to diagnose the simple fact that if a company can automate their job away and save money in the process, they probably will.
Fear of automation is now an ambient fact of life that transcends demographics; as the surveys show, those concerns vary slightly according to education level and age, but there is a significant level of anxiety to be found across the board. Nintex, the automation company, sums it up as follows: “Gen Z — and everyone else, for that matter — sees the potential in AI and automation but need to know it won’t eliminate their jobs.” Unfortunately, the unsaid reason that most companies are adopting automation in the first place is to do exactly that, at least to some degree. Gen Z—and everyone else, for that matter—knows this.
They know that for the same reason they know they are on uneven economic footing, to say the least. (The survey collected Gen Zers’ other economic fears, too, like: “I won’t be able to get a job that allows me to support myself financially.” And: “My industry will collapse as soon as I begin working.” And: “I fear I will not be able to make a living with the field I’m entering”; “I’m worried about not being able to pay off my loans”; “I’m scared of a changing economy”; and “I’m concerned I won’t be able to sufficiently support my family.”)
Perhaps if Gen Z looked at the generational trends and did not see forecasts like the deep likelihood that they’ll be the second generation to be poorer than their parents, due to widening inequality, the degradation of job quality in certain sectors, and the ‘uberization’ of work—and no small part to the fact that automated and semi-automated technologies are sending an increasing share of profits upstream, where they are enjoyed by the upper management and not the middle class—they may have more reason to accept an “empowerment narrative” about AI and automation.
Until then, my gut tells me the anxiety will only bloom from here on out.