Many workers fear the looming automation of their jobs. This isn’t a new threat — it’s one that’s been around for centuries — and it doesn’t have to fill workers with anxiety. Tom Davenport, a management professor at Babson College and co-author of the new book “Only Humans Need Apply” explains how workers can thrive, even in the robot age.
The latest waves of automation threaten professional workers who have long felt safe from job-destroying robots. But that’s not a new fear.
The prospect of automating jobs has haunted workers for centuries, going back at least to the Luddites said to have destroyed textile looms in the early 19th century, write Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby in their new book “Only Humans Need Apply” (Harper Business).
Mr. Davenport, a management professor at Babson College, spoke to The Wall Street Journal about how knowledge workers can thrive in a robot age.
WSJ: Some people say that robots will take all of our jobs, and others say that new jobs will emerge to suit a more automated economy. Where do you fall?
Mr. Davenport: We’re more on the optimistic side but it’s dangerous to be totally sanguine. We believe job loss won’t be catastrophic but there will be some on the margins, and it’s a nasty experience for the people who do lose their jobs. They tend to lose them for the rest of their lives. But the fear is overstated. Computers don’t tend to replace whole jobs; they replace specific tasks. Also, it’s a relatively slow process to eliminate jobs. There are just as many bank tellers now as there were in 1980. It’s not a profession that’s growing and no one would recommend it for their child, but it takes quite a while to replace jobs.
WSJ: Give an example of someone who is transitioning well.
Mr. Davenport: One of my heroes is a guy named Alex Hafez. He was a lawyer who didn’t go to a top law school. He got a job at a law firm but fell off the partner track during the financial crisis and lost his job, so he ended up doing contract document review. He became an expert on e-discovery, and now he’s a solution architect for a prominent e-discovery software and services firm. He said, why fight these machines? He became entirely marketable.
WSJ: What would you advise a person graduating college?
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