Tomorrow’s Workforce: Robots Are Replacing People

By Wayne Lutton
Volume 25, Number 2 (Winter 2015)
Issue theme: "Vanishing resources"

 Fifty percent of today’s jobs may disappear during the next decade.

Technology is replacing more jobs traditionally performed by low-skill human labor. One example: Peds Legwear, a socks manufacturer whose owner closed three hosiery plants in North America eleven years ago after he concluded they couldn’t compete with Asian imports, opened a new plant in Hildebran, North Carolina, in December 2014. Rapid changes in technology and other costs led president and owner Michael Penner to invest in a new plant which is making socks for Wal-Mart and other customers.

Key to the operation is 90 machines built by the Italian robotics firm LonatiSpA. The Lonati machines knit yarn into tubes and then stich a toe seam. This combines what used to be separate processes, halving the number of production workers needed. As Mark Bess, a senior technician at the plant explained, “You cut out a whole department” that used to sew the seams. “That’s what makes us competitive with China.” The new plant pays $10-$11 an hour to all but its most skilled workers.

Another example: the German brewer, Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus, has installed an ABB Ltd. IRB7600 robot that sorts and stacks 30,000 bottles of beer an hour, far faster than humans can. This has allowed the company to reassign its human employees to other bottling and packaging tasks.

Robot makers are finding new ways to apply technology to automate dirty and repetitious tasks. The International Federation of Robotics, an industry association, said that sales are rising steadily in all sorts of industries. Bakeries are now using robots to bag pretzels. Brickworks can now employ robots to remove fired bricks from kilns. Interfaces are being streamlined, so novices can operate them.

In 2012, Daniel Barowy, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, developed the first fully automatic computer system that can delegate tasks to human workers. His “AutoMan” uses crowd-sourcing platforms, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, to turn over problems to human workers. As Barowy remarked, “I’d rather have a computer as my boss than a jerk.”

Last year, the consulting firm CBRE and China-based Genesis interviewed over 200 technology experts and business leaders in Asia, Europe, and North America. In November 2014, they issued their findings, Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Work Place. Over the next decade, a paradigm shift is expected in the way workplaces operate. They anticipate that nearly half of occupations currently existing will be redundant by 2025.

Why, then, are the United States and other developed countries opening the floodgates to more immigration? What will these millions of additional people and their children do a decade from now? We simply don’t need millions of foreign workers. As robotics technologist Ben Wey warns, we will lose the vast majority of traditional jobs “and they will not all be replaced by higher skill jobs. There is no doubt that this will cause social unrest and turbulence in society.” ■

[Sources: James Hagerty, “Decimated U.S. Industry Pulls Up Its Socks: Manufacturing Makes Modest Comeback Thanks to More Efficient Machines, Tepid Wage Growth,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2014, p. B6; John Revill, “Robots Keep the Beer Flowing,” Wall Street Journal, December 26-27, 2014, p. B4; Ben Way, Jobocalypse: The End of Human Jobs And How Robots Will Replace Them, 2013, p. 132 (available through]

About the author

Wayne Lutton, Ph.D., is editor of The Social Contract.