Work gives our lives meaning. What will we do when robots have taken our jobs?

Our jobs give us purpose, not just a paycheck.
Our jobs give us purpose, not just a paycheck.
Image: AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara
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I recently interviewed Dr. Zev Eigen, the global director of analytics at Littler, for an article about artificial intelligence and workplace communication. About halfway through the conversation, I jokingly asked, “Do you think my writing job could be taken over by AI?” I was sure he’d say no.

“Instead of a grammar helper in Microsoft Word, you could have something populated with AI…derived from information that you’ve already generated,” Eigen said. “It could take the ‘best hits’ of everything you’ve ever written, and then use that to formulate what your next paragraph is going to be.” In other words, a program could use my published work online to create articles that are optimized for SEO and shareability—it could be the better, cheaper version of me. Gulp.

While Eigen was suggesting AI as a tool to complement my work, not replace it, I couldn’t help but feel rattled. I got my first taste of something that blue-collar workers have been thinking for far longer: What will happen if I lose my job to AI?

The benefits of work

People love to say “Thank God it’s Friday” so much that we’ve named a restaurant chain after it. Yet despite our collective obsession with the weekend, the time we spend working provides us with a lot more than money.

A job can fulfill many of our key drivers of well-being, such as social status, social relations, daily structure, and goals. As a result, if a worker loses their job, their mental health could suffer as well as their ability to pay the bills. According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 18% of American adults have been treated for depression after remaining unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. In other words, our job status directly affects our mental health.

Unfortunately, America is at its lowest full-time employment rate since 1983. Simultaneously, the country’s mental health is on the decline; the Journal of Psychiatric Services reported that 3.4% of adult Americans, are recorded as having mental illnesses. This is up from the 3% that was documented a decade ago. Of those, roughly 8.3 million people suffer from psychological distress that is serious enough to require medical treatment.

When you juxtapose the facts about the emotional and economic state of Americans, it’s clear that the downfall of one directly affects the other. And if we’re not careful about how many jobs are automated by AI, the situation could get even worse.

AI taking our minds, not just our jobs

AI is tipped to greatly impact the American job market. For example, the research firm Gartner anticipates that a third of US jobs will “be taken by software or robots by 2025.” A 2015 Oxford University study predicts “that up to 50% of all American workers will be replaced by machines,” and a recent study by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) warns that 62% of all US jobs might be at risk.

As if that’s not enough, multiple publications have forecast that half of our current occupations won’t even exist in 10 years—that’s right, half. Such a wide-scale automation of jobs will impact every industry from writers to chefs, not just blue-collar workers whose tasks can be more easily mechanized.

John C. Havens, AI expert and author of Heartificial Intelligence, agrees. “It is illogical, erroneous, and hyper-dangerous if, as a society, we are still assuming things like, ‘Well, this industry’s only going to automate up to this point,’ or ‘People will always want humans in this,'” Havens says. “Every company that can is looking for opportunities to automate or use AI because it’s a totally hot sector. It’s amping up across dozens and dozens of verticals.”

Mass automation will not just jeopardize jobs but also the emotional health of workers. The more people who lose their jobs to robots, the larger the portion of the population who will suffer depressive episodes as a result. Author Tim Leberecht labels this at-risk group the “Disepensables” and argues that even “if they have the basic-level needs of the Maslow hierarchy of needs covered, they still lack wellbeing, fulfillment, and agency.” Leberecht also predicts that the Dispensables will face a stigma of being worthless, and won’t be recognized as valued members of society.

Ethical AI practices

Both Havens and Leberecht feel that mass job automation will be devastating for our well-being. However, other experts in the space feel differently.

“I believe AI will free us from menial, repetitive tasks,” says Etienne Mérineau, the co-founder of the bot-building company, Heyday.AI. “People will be able to focus on what makes them feel fulfilled: creative work, critical thinking, complex decision-making, and emotional intelligence … AI will help us rebalance our lives by spending less time on unfulfilling work and more time at home, and with friends and family.” In this way, AI could be seen as a way to enhance our humanity, rather than replace it.

However, his argument is missing a piece: What happens if a large amount of jobs are automated, but more fulfilling, human-centric jobs haven’t been created yet? Without adequate preparation, the potential for a large-scale emotional depression is still there.

Thankfully, Havens doesn’t think that companies will let their offices become overrun by robots. Instead, he predicts that businesses will develop ethical stances on job automation. As he puts it, “Ethics will be the new green.”

Just as it became trendy for brands to be environmentally sustainable, it’s now equally as important for them to consider how they will ethically integrate AI into their workforce. “We’re at the point where the sustainability question is about people,” Havens says. “Companies need to get together at the C-suite level and start analyzing the bigger picture for how their organization’s going to run over the next two to 10 years.” Without this intentionality, they might accidentally automate people out of their jobs—and cause mass emotional disarray as a result.

If job automation continues unchecked, a lot of people will be left without jobs—and without purpose. As a result, it’s crucial for companies to consider how AI will not only impact their bottom line, but also their employees’ mental health. As Leberecht says, “Now is the time to prepare for the looming mental-health crisis before we find ourselves in the midst of a historic mass-depression, with large parts of the population isolated, social contracts eroding, and our democratic societies at risk.”