8 min read

The Real Problem with Robots Taking Our Jobs

We've seen that a having our jobs automated by technology can make for an ideal future world but I haven't touched on quite how painful it will be to get there. The question of how we achieve this at all - and if so, how we minimise the pain of it - will fill countless essays to come on topics from unemployment support, capital taxation, and even the ideal speed of this transition. Here I offer a perspective on what I believe could be the biggest problem with robots taking our jobs - the negative impact on our identities and mental health.

This was the topic of the TEDx talk that I delivered in September 2019. I'll let you decide if it's still relevant...

The Real Problem with Robots Taking Our Jobs - TEDxOhloneCollege Sep '19

We are not our jobs. Our identities are rich, broad, and expansive. If we define ourselves by our work then we - and society writ large - are at risk of destabilising impacts to our mental health when our jobs become automated. It may be a way off but we ought to start building this resilience now. Try giving a broader answer when you're next asked 'what do you do?' and asking 'who are you?' or 'what's your story?' instead.

Below I've shared a transcript of the talk. I haven't shared the presentation as I think this video shows all of the slides well and I sadly no longer have my list of sources to share either.


 They say to start with an introduction. Hi, I'm David Corfield. What's your name? Sonny! What do you do? A carpenter! Great, fantastic. I'm an advisor and an expert on the future of work. It's great to meet you. 

But everyone, take a second. How would you answer that question? What do you do?  And keep that answer in your head. Because in ten minutes time, I'm going to ask you again.  And I hope that you'll have a slightly different answer.  Why is ‘what do you do?’ the first question we ask, when we meet somebody new?  We might brush it off as small talk, but it does imply that we believe that a person's occupation is the most important aspect of who they are. 

The real problem I'm addressing today is how closely we all tie our identity to our work.  In tying our work to something as seemingly rigid as our identity, we become inflexible in our career plans.  And in a world where robots may well take our jobs, well, that's a dangerous position to be in.  Today, I'll demonstrate just how closely we each tie our identity to our work. I'll share how this is something we should all be thinking about, this robotic trend.  And I'll provide some methods of how we might prepare for this potentially traumatic experience. 

According to a Gallup poll, you're more likely to believe that your work defines you than it's just something you do for money.  But that isn't such a surprise given the prevalence of our ‘what do you do?’ question, and how most of us spend most of our time working, even more than sleeping.  And it impacts everyone. 

So for the students in the room, another Gallup poll found that workers with a college education are more likely to find a positive sense of identity in their work.  But on the flip side, imagine Brett.  He got into trucking because he's adventurous, he loves a challenge, he wanted to see more of this great country. 

But that would be very difficult to reconcile if automated trucking technology forces him into a command centre meaning he has to remotely pilot trucks. There's no adventure, challenge, or travel.  And this isn't just a modern trend.  Research by Al Gini from over 20 years ago found work to be a fundamental aspect of identity. 

Further back, American history is founded on the Protestant work ethic.  The idea that, to be a good person, you had to be a good worker.  And back further still, this whole idea has its roots in tribal existence.  That if you were a bad worker, well, you were letting down the rest of the tribe. And you were seen as a bad person because of it. 

This has very different manifestations in every country around the world. But everywhere, there is a cultural expectation of work being a part of identity.  And this is true historically, but modern trends are definitely exacerbating this problem.  Our familial and social pressure to excel at work is stronger than ever. 

This connection between work and identity has only strengthened.  As generation by generation, parents have reinforced it in their kids.  Modern companies, and tech companies in particular, are selling identities as a recruitment tool, particularly to students.  People call themselves Tweeps and Googlers.  And they give them free food and call offices to help reinforce that idea. 

This internalization is best observed when looking at employee backlash. So, take the recent employee protest at Google over how Google uses AI.  If I define myself as a Googler, well, then I want Google to truly represent who I am.  And so if the company does something scandalous, or even just something I don't believe in, well, then I'm going to push back, because I'll feel like my identity has been called into question. 

Perhaps the most troubling modern trend, however, is how the media has condensed identity to be one single thing. What was your driver's license is now your Facebook profile. Your identity can be stolen because you are a single data point. That's clearly a troubling situation to be in. But that's only half of our story. 

The other is that these roles that we're so strongly defining ourselves by, well, they can get taken away by technology, and with minimal notice. 

When talking about robots and automation, the headlines can be confusing, intimidating, hyperbolic even.  And so I'm not here today to tell you that your job is going to get stolen by a robot, because I don't know.  Nobody knows.  But I'll hopefully filter the research enough to persuade you that this is something you should really be thinking about right now. 

Researchers disagree on how big this impact of automation is going to be.  And when exactly we can expect to feel this impact.  But taking conservative estimates, they believe, they all believe, and agree on three key things.  

One, we will all be living and working for longer.  So, hands up in the audience. Who here is under 35 years old? So, I am sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you will likely be working for another 50 years at least. On average.  I know, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.  

Two, within this 50-year horizon, at least two in every three jobs is going to be significantly impacted by automation technology.  This is across every type of job and all industries. 

And three, education is just much slower to change than the demand for labour from these organizations.  So, you could be training for a job for ten years, which can be automated in a matter of months.  

So, taking these three things together, it's not the case that your job is going to get stolen by a robot. But there is a strong enough chance that your career is impacted significantly by this technology, that you should be thinking and preparing for it today.  

But that's not easy.  In fact, self-deception is kind of the rational response in this situation. To accept this trend means we're going to have to inspect and question our own identities. 

That's not easy.  But I implore you to really think about this today.  Because awareness, it’s most of the solution to building the resiliency in our identities that we're going to need.  It's the self-deception, and the ill-preparedness that will come with that, that's really going to come back to hurt us. 

You could be in education for 20 years.  You could spend another 10 becoming the best in the world in your field, to have automation technology take your job. Have the rug pulled out from under your feet and your identity shattered.  

I do want to provide some methods with which we might prepare for this. But first of all, I acknowledge it's been a little heavy so far.  So, I've got some good news.  Most people dislike their work identity anyway. 

Okay, it may not seem like good news, but stay with me here.  Another Gallup poll, this one from 2013, found that over 70 percent of workers in the US are disengaged from their work. These roles that we're so strongly defining ourselves by, we’re not particularly enthused about that definition anyway. 

This technology wave, it's not so much a threat, but an opportunity.  It's an opportunity for all of us to find work that is much more meaningful to us.  

The first practical recommendation I'll make is to leverage a portfolio career as a mitigation strategy.  So this is the idea that having multiple income streams will leave you more resilient if one of those were to get cut off. So you might be a teacher that has an Etsy page or a software engineer that runs a non-profit one day a week.  But to do this, we must all become more adaptable through learning how to learn and cultivating a more adaptable mindset.  When the half-life of practical skills is falling by the day,  learning how to learn is arguably the biggest benefit of formal education. 

And in the mindset component, that speaks to the second area of recommendation I'll make.  The self-work you can do to broaden your identity beyond just your work. The first step here, we must all get past this social stigma we have against people with multiple occupations, sometimes referred to as the jack of all trades. 

So if one of you students were to go to your careers advisor and say, I want to try all of these different occupations, they’re likely going to tell you, hmm, maybe just pick one.  But, you can tell them  that these were Leonardo da Vinci's occupations,  and he wasn't a jack of all trades, he was a renaissance man, a polymath. 

He definitely didn't have a good answer to our what do you do question.  It was probably a very long answer, but that's okay.  And the second part of this is that we’ve all got to ask ourselves, how comfortable do I feel with this idea of a portfolio career?  Because when somebody asks me, what do you do? It's easy to answer because I have my role, my title, my organization. But how can I do that if I have three different roles?  Well, the answer is to find the common thread between them and to abstract it up to our meaning or purpose.  So I'm a speaker, but I'm also a writer, a researcher, an advisor.  And so, if someone were to ask me today, I might say that “I empower smart and beautiful audiences how to prepare themselves for the future of work”.

It encompasses all of those things. It tells you a lot more about who I am. It's a lot easier to give that passionate response to the question when you're older.  But when you're younger, you’re often still exploring, so you don't really know. But that's okay.  

Historically, we have served our careers.  But now we have to start crafting careers that serve us. 

I'll leave you with the one thought that I really hope you take away. Identity is not a single data point. And it's certainly not just your work. It is rich and broad and expansive.  When we define ourselves too narrowly, and try and fit our identity into 140 characters, we’ve robbed the world of so much of who we are. 

We have a unique opportunity to start answering our question differently. So, I'll finish with another introduction. Don't worry, I'm not coming back. I'm going to ask you all one last time, and I hope I leave you thinking about a slightly different answer...  

Hi! I'm David Corfield.  What do you do?