April 3, 2017

"A Robot Ate My Job"

Workers in both blue and white collar jobs are looking over their shoulders, worried that robots will replace them.

The fear of being replaced by a robot is increasingly common. It is also one that may be rooted in reality. “If you're afraid of losing your job to a robot, you're not alone,” says Paul McClure, author of a study on workers' fears. “This is a real concern among a substantial portion of the American population. They are not simply a subgroup of generally fearful people.”

Fear of automation is nothing new. It goes back at least to the nineteenth century, when textile workers in England felt threatened by machines introduced by their employers and rose up against them both. But some economics researchers caution that the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence will be felt much more strongly in the next several years than it has in the past, particularly for those with routine jobs. According to McClure, this could even bridge the white/blue collar divide, affecting truck drivers, warehouse workers, loan officers and paralegals, to name just a few professions.

Whether these robotic fears actually come to pass or not, they are likely taking their toll on people's health already.

This idea has apparently struck a nerve.

Drawing on data from the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, which has been cataloguing the nation's fears in great detail annually since 2014, McClure found that financial fears related to technology are on the rise.

It's about two fears that plague workers' peace of mind. Individually, over 37 percent of people are worried about running out of money, and 19 percent are afraid of technology they don't understand. Where these fears intersect, more than one-third of people reported being afraid of technology that could lead to job loss. This is more than they fear romantic rejection, public speaking and police brutality.

McClure notes that fully 37 percent of the respondents were either afraid or very afraid of automation such as robots in the workforce, decision-making robots, technology they don't understand, artificial intelligence and people who trust artificial intelligence to do work. He refers to them as technophobes, though they very well may not be able to spend even 15 minutes without their phone by their side.

People afraid of the effects of technology are three times more likely to fear unemployment than other people are and nearly three times more likely to fear not having enough money in the future. They also have 95 percent greater odds of not being able to stop or control worrying than others do and 76 percent greater odds of feeling as if something awful might happen, two hallmarks of anxiety.

Previous research has found that people with little job security suffer from poorer mental health and that unemployment and job insecurity are often linked to heart disease and higher mortality. So whether these robotic fears actually come to pass or not, they are likely taking their toll on people's health already. Fear of being poor can be almost as debilitating as being poor is.

Only time will tell if there really is a robot gunning for your job.

The study appears in Social Science Computer Review.

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