American Workers Are in Serious Denial About the Future

Customers checking out restaurant automation
Customers checking out restaurant automation | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Social scientists and economists are getting pretty good at reading the tea leaves from available data. When it comes to forecasting future trends in employment and business, we generally have an idea of where things things are headed. Though there are big, unexpected events that occur and throw everything into flux, we can mostly plot out humanity’s course, on a macro level, over the next several decades.
Unfortunately, for a good portion of the world’s poor and working classes, it doesn’t look too good – even though we’re living in a time of unprecedented wealth and technological innovation. That innovation will ultimately replace workers in droves, and some large-scale economic policy shifts are going to be needed to sort things out.
But even as we face the prospect of increasing automation, and fewer employment opportunities, most American workers remain confident – perhaps too confident. A look at some new numbers from Pew Research Center shows that worker sentiment toward the future speaks not just to inflated confidence, but perhaps a sense of denial.
The Pew brief cites a 2013 study from Oxford University, which says that as much as 47% of American jobs are subject to automation in the near future. In other words, as much as half of the American work force may be facing a serious employment crisis, and we’re really doing nothing about it. Using that as a starting point, Pew surveyed Americans to drill further down into this dilemma, and see how Americans feel about the unnerving prospect of mass automation.
As expected, a majority (two-thirds) do expect that within 50 years, robots and computers will take over most of the menial work from human employees. But – and here’s the big hang-up – a majority of workers also think that their own specific professions or jobs won’t be impacted. Here’s the chart:
Pew workforce automation
This tells us that there’s some sort of disconnect at play, where a vast majority (80%) of us think we’ll somehow come away scot-free after some major technological and economic swings in the coming decades.
Of course, you have to point out a few obvious things here. For one, those surveyed were asked about the economy 50 years in the future – 50 years from now, it’s hard to think that most people who were polled imagine they’ll still be working, or even alive, by that time. Secondly, the phrasing of the question – whether or not “their own jobs will exist in their current forms” – is also tricky. Do any of us actually think that our current jobs, as of right now, are going to be exactly the same in 5 decades? Probably not.
For those reasons, the data may not be quite as alarming. But there’s still an underlying sense that a lot of people simply aren’t grasping how big of a change we’re set to undergo in coming years. A change that some economists have labeled the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
“Although 11% of today’s workers are at least somewhat concerned that they might lose their jobs as a result of workforce automation, a larger number are occupied by more immediate worries – such as displacement by lower-paid human workers, broader industry trends or mismanagement by their employers,” the Pew brief says.
But perhaps the most interesting thing is this: “Overall there are relatively few differences in these expectations based on workers’ demographic characteristics, and the differences that do exist are relatively modest. For instance, younger workers are a bit more likely than older workers to expect that their current jobs will exist 50 years in the future: 84% of workers ages 18 to 29 expect that this will be the case, compared with 76% of workers ages 50 and older.”
So, despite the fact that technology is rapidly automating almost every facet of our lives, younger people are even more optimistic than older people about their jobs surviving the apocalypse of automation.
Could that be because younger workers are more likely to work in tech, or even freelance roles? It’s hard to tell. But you could argue that younger workers are in jobs that are more geared toward the “knowledge economy” rather than older workers who are still populating the trades, manufacturing, and other work that might end up being automated sooner. Again, it’s hard to really gauge.
But one thing is clear – we’re set for some big changes in the near future. Even though most Americans are aware of it, it seems we may not have fully accepted what it all means.
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