OZY Poll: How Americans Are Preparing for the Day Robots Threaten Their Jobs

OZY Poll: How Americans Are Preparing for the Day Robots Threaten Their Jobs

The Future of Work

SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

Why you should care

Because the robots are coming.

Americans are arming themselves with new skills as they brace for a heretofore unseen technological disruption that could threaten their jobs, but they likely underestimate the size of the coming shift. Those are among the key findings of OZY’s poll on the future of work, conducted with SurveyMonkey.

Fully 60 percent of employed respondents feel that technology presents at least some threat to their jobs, but most do not consider it much of a threat. In any case, 77 percent have taken some sort of professional training — from attending a webinar or workshop (50 percent) to completing online coursework (36 percent) to earning a “micro-credential” or “digital badge” (7 percent).

The most interesting thing about the perceived threat of technology to jobs is that people with the most education feel the least threatened.

Erin Pinkus, research scientist, SurveyMonkey

The numbers come from an online poll conducted from August 7 to August 9 of 3,350 adults across the country — including 631 millennials (ages 18 to 34) — randomly selected from those who take surveys on SurveyMonkey’s platform. The responses are weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using census data to reflect the demographic composition of the United States. The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 3 percentage points. (You can see the full results here and read more about SurveyMonkey’s methodology here.)

Though most workers express some concern about technology, only 7 percent of respondents with jobs think they are “very much” threatened by it. But from occupations that range from blue collar (truck drivers) to white collar (attorneys), AI is set to transform work in profound ways. “Retraining or training for this specific eventuality is part of the solution, but I don’t think that is going to be sufficient to prevent the wide-scale unemployment that will likely occur,” says Rishon Blumberg, co-founder of a talent agency for tech professionals called 10x Management. Blumberg has been trying to rally public attention to the coming disruption.

Older respondents are considerably more worried about technology than millennials are. Only 22 percent of 18- to 34-year-old employed respondents are “very much” or “somewhat” concerned about tech, while that number rises to 29 percent in the 35 to 64 age bracket and 33 percent for 65-plus. Similarly, 34 percent of workers 65 and older say they aren’t threatened at all, compared to 47 percent of millennials. The concerns also correlate strongly with education.

“The most interesting thing about the perceived threat of technology to jobs is that people who are armed with the most education feel the least threatened by technology,” says Erin Pinkus, a research scientist at SurveyMonkey who helped conduct the poll. “Only 23 percent of people with a college degree feel that threat, compared to 32 percent who have a high school degree or less. Perhaps this is because they feel armed with the tools to adapt to a new career in their field, or outside, should tech make their current jobs obsolete. People with more education are also engaging in more professional development activities and are likely [to be] lifelong learners.”

Indeed, 37 percent of workers with a high school education or less had not pursued any professional development options in the past three years, compared to 8 percent of those with college degrees and 5 percent of those with graduate degrees. Millennials were more likely to have enrolled in a degree program (28 percent) or completed online coursework (41 percent) than older workers.

Mike Goldstein, senior counsel at Cooley, where he represents a variety of education clients, says those numbers have room for dramatic growth. He suspects many more than the 7 percent who say they earned a “micro-credential” or “digital badge” have started but not completed the course work. Correspondence education has been around since the 19th century, but now online learning is reaching a much wider audience at a low cost — and at an urgent moment.

“The demand certainly is there as you have technological change in the workplace and people feel the need to be retrained,” Goldstein says. “But the major difference is how relatively easy it is to reach that [market]. The problem is not so much how easy it is, but people don’t understand the availability of resources. That’s a weakness in the education system. We’re not doing a good job letting people know that kind of retraining ability is out there.”

Greg Ferenbach, Goldstein’s colleague at Cooley, points out that “many employers require a credential to get promoted,” in a wide variety of fields. It’s a way for workers to adapt and perhaps avoid the labor market’s shift to more contract work. Despite the rise of the “gig economy,” 78 percent of respondents prefer a stable, full-time job to multiple flexible ones. Among the 18-to-35 age group, 27 percent favor gigs, compared to 18 percent among the 35-to-64 age group — a difference, but not a vast generation gap by any stretch.

“We are finding that millennials are actually not all that different from other generations on several fronts, and having the stability and predictability of a single full-time job is one of them,” Pinkus says. “This generation has had to deal with overcoming massive student debt and sometimes delaying or foregoing things that their parents enjoyed at the same age when they were growing up — buying a home, starting a family, etc. — because job opportunities in their field, or any field, for that matter, have been few and far between.”

And they, like everyone else, are facing another squeeze as the robots rise.

You can take the full poll for yourself by scrolling down in the box below.

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