The workplace is rapidly changing, warns a new OECD report about automation

By Diane Herbst
April 25, 2019 03:34 PM
Credit: Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto/Getty

In one area of the Austin airport, a whirring robotic machine has replaced baristas in making lattes and cappuccinos.

“No more lines, no more counter confusion, no more misspelled names,” Briggo, the coffee maker, says on its website.

But a new report from the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warns that automation and robots are far from a panacea.

Instead, these non-human replacements and other changes to the way we work, including globalization, are rapidly changing the workplace — and expected to erase or greatly change half of all jobs within the next 20 years, the report says, according to Bloomberg News.

Stefano Scarpetta, the labor director of the OECD, said in the report that the rapidity of this change is expected to be “startling.”

“Deep and rapid structural changes are on the horizon, bringing with them major new opportunities but also greater uncertainty among those who are not well equipped to grasp them,” Scarpetta said, according to Bloomberg.

This, in turn, may lead to a worsening of social and economic tensions that governments worldwide must swiftly counter, the report says.

Some of the robotic changes are already in plain view worldwide — from Boston, where automated cooking pots have replaced chefs at one restaurant, to Prague, where robots have replaced bartenders and waiters, according to The Washington Post.

Those who will be particularly affected by changes in the way we work — and who are lacking the safety nets and training systems more common in the past — are low-skilled, part-timers in the gig-economy or the young, the OECD reports.

HBO’s John Oliver tackled the issue of automation in a March segment on Last Week Tonight, citing the good and the bad from robots taking over. And he riffed on how President Donald Trump has blamed other countries for “stealing your jobs,” but that Trump has been ignoring the tremendous impact machines have had on job loss.

“For someone who claims that he cares so much about the American worker, he’s done almost nothing to help people displaced by automation,” Oliver says. “And there is frankly plenty he could be doing.”

The OECD warns it has a “very real concern” of an erasure of jobs that once ensured a middle-class way of life.

“The OECD Employment Outlook does not envisage a jobless future. But it does foresee major challenges for the future of work,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, according to Computer Business Review.

An antidote to this, suggests the OECD, is more training and governments increasing worker protections, according to Bloomberg News.