How Robots Will Make Our Work More Human

Automation is coming. It will improve your job.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the idea of “work.” With face-to-face contact now risky, entire industries—like retail and food service—have been devastated, while the office as we know it, at least for the moment, is dead. Our interactions with customers and colleagues are muffled by face masks or mediated by the pixelated coldness of a computer screen. Work for many Americans is now alienating and isolated—assuming there’s a job at all.

The pandemic is dehumanizing work in other ways, as companies accelerate efforts to swap out vulnerable humans with virus-proof machines. Robots serving cappuccinos in Tokyo coffee shops might be just the start. The Brookings Institution estimates that 36 million U.S. jobs are “highly” susceptible to elimination over the next decade, while doomsday futurists like Martin Ford have warned of a “jobless future.” This grim prediction is why the former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and others who are worried about mass joblessness believe that a universal basic income is necessary.

Human Work In the Age of Smart Machines by Jamie Merisotis, RosettaBooks, 216 pp.

In refreshing defiance of this existential gloom is Human Work, a compelling new book on the future of work by Lumina Foundation President Jamie Merisotis. (Merisotis is a former Washington Monthly staffer and a frequent contributor, and Lumina is one of the magazine’s funders.) In Merisotis’s view, automation brings liberation, not threat. It frees workers to focus on the uniquely human activities that robots cannot do—such as thinking, collaborating, and innovating—and to embrace the traits that robots cannot have, such as compassion, empathy, and ethics.

“People cannot and should not compete with machines for work,” Merisotis writes. Rather, “people need to focus on what makes us different from machines by developing our knowledge, skills and abilities [to put] human capabilities and values first.” The result, Merisotis argues, could be a collective redefinition of what work means, and perhaps even a new sense of purpose. A bracing shot of optimism amid the current disruption, Human Work is a reminder of the human values we haven’t lost, even as the pandemic has robbed us—at least for now—of physical connection.

History shows that technology tends to create more jobs than it destroys. The rise of automobiles, for instance, created millions of new jobs even as horse-and-buggy travel became obsolete. Some pessimists nonetheless argue that the coming wave of automation poses a unique threat. While cars are not a direct substitute for human labor, robots can and have replaced human workers. And when armed with artificial intelligence, as is increasingly the case, some warn that these next-generation robots are not only interchangeable with humans but are also superior.

The potential impact of AI is now a topic of fierce debate among technologists and economists. While one particularly breathless analysis from the McKinsey Global Institute predicts the loss of 800 million jobs worldwide, noted economists like Robert Gordon are far more skeptical of the pace and scale of change. Though a self-driving truck could deliver goods to stores, as Gordon told Vox, you still need humans to unload the truck and put products on the shelves.

Merisotis sidesteps this quarrel, describing the war over job loss predictions as “a waste of time and effort.” Not only is the answer unknowable, he writes, “much more complex outcomes are likely than simply ‘truck driving will disappear.’ ” Instead, he reframes the debate: “What’s more important than whether a particular job will go away is that everyone will see jobs changed in some way by technology.” The book’s focus, therefore, is on what technology brings to work, rather than what it takes away.

First, Merisotis points out that automation has in many instances improved the quality of workers’ jobs by relieving people of tasks that are dangerous, dirty, or mind-numbingly dull. (Machines, in short, have taken on the tasks that workers have historically complained make them feel like “cogs,” or less than human.) It has also changed the nature of work, from rote and impersonal to innovative and individual. Photographers, for instance, spend very little time today on the mechanical task of processing film, leaving more time to focus on creative expression and connection with their subjects. Their work has become “uniquely human,” a phenomenon Merisotis notes is already rippling through every field. According to a 2018 Vanguard research analysis he cites, “across all occupations, half of all tasks are uniquely human, compared to just 30% of tasks in 2000.”

Automation has in many instances improved the quality of workers’ jobs by relieving people of tasks that are dangerous, dirty, or mind-numbingly dull.

The net result of this humanization of work, Merisotis argues, will be more new jobs, many of them impervious to automation, even by AI. In particular, he predicts the growth of four new categories of uniquely human work: “helpers,” where customer service and personal interaction are paramount (think health care, financial counseling, and other services); “bridgers,” who combine technical expertise with people skills to help run systems or connect lay people with expert services (think IT help desk professionals or auto repair shop managers); “integrators,” who synthesize a broad base of knowledge and skills but apply them in a personal way (think social workers and elementary school teachers); and “creators,” workers who possess technical skills along with deep creativity (think architects and game designers). In many instances, these jobs are not only adjacent to technology but also dependent on it.

To illustrate this new paradigm, Merisotis weaves into his manuscript stories of workers who have successfully transformed their own careers or navigated automation in their industries. Among the latter is Joel Lewis, who started out on the assembly line at Cummins Inc. making engine parts but now trains teams of workers maintaining the robots (or collaborative robots, known as “cobots”) who now perform his old job. Many of his anecdotes feature older workers who have reinvented themselves, underscoring a principal theme of the book: the importance of lifelong access to training and education. Included is Rodney Owens, who enrolled in community college at age 40 to study computer-integrated machining; Malaika White, a single mother who returned to college in her 30s; and Mark Sciarra, an aging former pro wrestler (once known as Rip Rogers) who has cobbled together a profitable freelance career teaching aspiring wrestlers, creating YouTube videos, and authoring books.

But for all these success stories, Merisotis also includes a crucial caveat: While this transformation of work should be embraced, many workers will need help making the leap. Even as the number of “good” jobs is growing, they are primarily going to workers who have some sort of credential above a high school diploma. Of the 5.6 million jobs lost in the Great Recession for people with a high school education or less, only 80,000 of them have come back, he notes. No doubt the pandemic has erased even those extremely modest gains.

How to better prepare today’s workers for tomorrow’s jobs is the task of the final third of Human Work. While “education and training” has become the default mantra for helping workers manage economic disruption, it will not be enough to simply expand a broken system. Merisotis argues for deeper, systemic reform as well. Though the failings of the nation’s education and workforce development system could fill—and have filled—many volumes (as well as the pages of this magazine), Merisotis pinpoints three problems that particularly handicap Americans’ ability to thrive in a post-automation world.

First is the simple fact that far too many workers lack a credential beyond high school, even as higher education becomes increasingly key to landing a good job. Government data shows that only about 43 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have some sort of credential beyond a high school diploma, even as two-thirds of jobs today require post-secondary training or education. The problem is that most colleges and universities are primarily aimed at younger students coming straight out of high school, with little capacity for the many millions of older students who need a second chance at higher education.

Second, even when students do have access to education, they aren’t acquiring the people skills and problem-solving skills they increasingly need to succeed in the workforce. Instead, schools are still far too focused on academic and technical skills. “Human work demands a broader, more integrated kind of learning,” traditionally associated with the liberal arts, says Merisotis, who cautions against an overreliance on narrowly focused STEM education. While technical skills are still vital, he continues, “the desire and ability to continuously learn new skills across a range of fields is far more important.”

The third and final problem is one that has long occupied high education reformers: What are the specific skills and knowledge that credentials actually signify? Employers, students, and parents have long assumed that earning a diploma, especially from a “prestigious” institution, means that there’s been some meaningful transfer of content from school to student. But the truth is, as Merisotis writes, “no one knows what the graduates of our education systems really know and can do, least of all the graduates themselves.” Employers have no way to judge if a potential worker truly has the requisite skills, and most students have no way to know if the credentials they are working toward (and paying a lot for) have value in the labor market.

Government data shows that only about 43 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have some sort of credential beyond a high school diploma, even as two-thirds of jobs today require post-secondary training or education.

To remedy these three failures, Merisotis proposes a total rethinking of the traditional school-college-work pathway, where students experience each step in a discrete and often disconnected way. Under the current system, students are “done” with school, then move on to work. Career exploration and preparation are often not part of the school experience; one survey by Gallup and Strada Education, for instance, found that just 20 percent of undergraduates visit their campus career services center. By contrast, what Merisotis envisions is the integration of learning and work into a continual, iterative experience over the course of a worker’s career, where career preparation is part of education and education is part of the job.

Human Work offers a framework for how to achieve these reforms. Colleges and universities should revamp their business models to meet the demand for lifelong education and serve older students in particular. Schools should also remake their curricula so that students become what Merisotis calls wide learners, who can think across disciplines. Companies need to make training a part of their business plan, with expansive on-the-job coaching and apprenticeships aimed at developing the skills that both companies and workers need. And to solve the problem of what credentials mean, Merisotis calls for a new system of transparency that defines and standardizes the competencies credentials signify so that employers and students understand their value.

Rather than be prescriptive in how these changes need to happen, Merisotis calls for innovation and provides examples of schools and companies that are leading the way. Amarillo College, a community college in Texas, for instance, has dramatically changed its approach to better serve its students, many of whom are first-generation learners juggling competing demands of work and family. The school not only offers supports such as a food pantry, a clothes closet, and emergency cash assistance, it also has replaced the traditional 16-week semester with more intensive eight-week sessions that better fit students’ schedules. As one result, the school has improved its three-year completion rate to 45 percent—a stunning turnaround from the 9 percent graduation rate it reported in 2010.

Another example of new thinking is the six-week art class now required of medical students at the University of Virginia, a model for the kind of integrated learning Human Work calls for schools to provide. By studying art for six weeks, students not only hone their observational skills but also develop capacity for “personal reflection, tolerance of ambiguity, and awareness of personal bias,” Merisotis writes. “These are very real skills that have big effects on the quality of care their patients will one day receive.”

Merisotis also points to forward-thinking companies that have made big investments in worker training and apprenticeships, although he acknowledges that far too many businesses still see training as an expense or an employee benefit rather than an integral part of their business model. “We need to rethink everything from tax policy to accounting standards to make sure investing in people is seen as essential to the enterprise,” he writes.

Perhaps Merisotis’s most radical proposal is to shift toward so-called competency-based learning, where students and workers are judged by the skills they actually possess rather than their diploma or the perceived reputation of the school that awarded it. Such a reform would not only ensure that students acquire skills and education of actual value in the labor market, it would also help dismantle the elitism of current higher education. Essential to this reform is the creation of a comprehensive, transparent system for defining, cataloging, and tracking credentials so that students and workers are armed with information about the credentials they can earn, their value, and their cost. Ultimately, Merisotis envisions a marketplace for credentials, where students, not colleges, have the leverage. “Consumers’ ability to navigate the system means that pressure will be on the established brands to produce results consumers want,” he writes. “A reduction in brand power in higher education because of better information means that the system overall will be better.”

Human Work is a bold and necessary manifesto for building the education and career pathways tomorrow’s students and workers need. If there is one flaw in this book, it is that Merisotis does not sufficiently acknowledge that there will be failures. Whether by dint of disability, bad luck, or personal circumstances, not every worker will make a successful transition to human work. And given the increasing paucity of lower-skilled work, the stakes are higher. Still others may be unwilling to let go of an accustomed way of life and the sense of identity derived from a long career. What to do about the workers who have already fallen through the cracks is outside the scope of this book, yet these workers cannot be neglected if there is to be systemic change.

In his now-classic oral history, Working, the journalist Studs Terkel captured the hopes and anxieties of dozens of American workers whose jobs—in manufacturing, mining, and other occupations—were then on the precipice of disruption. What haunted these workers, he wrote, was “the planned obsolescence of people that is of a piece with the planned obsolescence of the things they make.” Working was published in 1974, and the worries of these workers were indeed realized, especially as manufacturing jobs cratered beginning in the 1980s.

Public policy failed to help those who lost jobs, and the consequences of that failure are reverberating today. Donald Trump swept into office in 2016 riding the bitterness of Americans who had lost their place in the old economy and believed themselves unwelcome in the new one. Their anger, hardened to resentment and distrust, will continue to be an obstacle to social progress, including the investments necessary for educational and workforce system reform, unless the difficulties they face are also addressed.

Yet the need for change could not be more urgent. Absent the kinds of reforms Merisotis calls for in Human Work, America runs the risk of creating still another generation of workers cheated of opportunities for success. Their disappointment will taint our politics. More tragically, their human potential will be lost.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.