Former film producer and current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently claimed that robots won’t pose any threat to American jobs for another fifty or so years. Shortly after he said this, two leading economists said robots have already displaced human workers, and will continue to do so at an alarming rate.
This is great for automated robot makers. Their bottom lines will get larger and their compensation will skyrocket as more of their products are adopted by innumerable industries. Investors in these companies will also have something to celebrate, as automation stocks will increase and lead to record-high gains. At the same time, American workers get the short end of the stick. Entire positions in the workforce are being automated. Every single company is examining how most or all of their positions could be performed by robots or computer programs in the future. This could lead to a spike in unemployment and a massive decrease in consumer spending. (If people’s jobs are replaced, how are they supposed to spend money on things?)
The fast food industry is expected to see the biggest push toward replacing their workers with machines. Companies like Wendy’s and McDonald’s already have self-serve kiosks in place of human cashiers at many locations, while planning to expand these kiosks to all locations worldwide. These computerized ordering devices have an upfront cost at or under $15,000 each, but compare that to constantly paying a cashier (or cashiers) minimum wage for 30-40 hours a week for a year or so. In the end, these inventions will greatly benefit fast food chains and their investors, but give low-skill workers less of a chance to find work.
Greg Creed, CEO of Yum Brands (Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), recently spoke to CNBC on how he thinks automated servers and delivery bots will replace human servers and delivery drivers in the next ten-to-fifteen years. The company is even experimenting with automated food producers, meaning the kitchen staff in fast food chains must also worry about losing their jobs. Companies like Yum, McDonald’s, CKE, and every other major chain are at least in the research and development stages of figuring out how to supplement or replace every single human function in their locations.
Fast food chains are aware of the outcome of automating some or all of their restaurant functions. Keep in mind that these companies are some of the biggest opponents of an increase in the minimum wage. They want to increase profits and decrease operating costs (labor costs, benefits). They can’t cut corners anymore on food costs, as Americans increasingly desire healthier, fresher food and are unwilling to accept anything less. That’s why they’re turning to cutting staffing costs, greatly reducing overhead and reaping the benefits.
Shareholders are also wise to the automation trend. People who own stock in a company want said company to increase profits quarter after quarter and year after year. Fast food companies can do this by decreasing labor costs over time. It may screw over lower- and middle-class Americans, but many investors care more about their own bottom line and gains than the plight of the average American.
What can you do to prevent and avoid the automation trend? Not much. Many major companies are currently working against their own employees. Most fast food companies are already implementing automated additions to their locations and will continue to do so until most human functions are considered obsolete. Other companies in different industries are gearing up to do the same. Uber, for instance, is building self-driving car that will eventually replace their drivers with automated vehicles. Amazon is heavily invested in automation, and is working on letting drones and machines do the packing, shipping, and delivery instead of warehouse workers and UPS drivers.
If you wanted to fight against this, simply don’t patronize companies that are automating their positions. You might find this difficult, however, as everything from your local grocery chain (self-checkout kiosks) to your hardware store (key-making machines) has or will have some automated function in place. You could also invest in these companies and make your voice heard at shareholder meetings, though your opinion would unfortunately be quite unpopular.
If you’re a worker worried about getting outsourced, simply don’t. That’s easier said than done, but going back to school or learning a trade that can’t be automated could mean the difference between being unemployed and staying afloat. Just don’t think your job is immune to automation. As I write this, someone in a lab somewhere is analyzing the text and seeing how a machine algorithm could do the same with halfway-decent efficiency. In the working world of smarter robots and adaptive algorithms, no job is safe.