Take a breather

Feeling threatened by machines? You need to relax—seriously

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Each year on the first Monday in September, Americans celebrate Labor Day by not working. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the holiday is “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

Labor Day dates back to the late 19th century, a period of economic turmoil that spawned both the U.S. labor movement and the mythical American labor hero John Henry. According to legend, Henry was a railway worker who excelled at driving steel spikes into solid rock using a nine-pound hammer. He worked for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, on a crew that was assigned to dig a tunnel through Big Bend Mountain in West Virginia.

One day a traveling salesman demonstrated a steam-powered drill that he claimed could drive steel spikes better than any human worker, even the mighty John Henry. So Henry’s co-workers organized a contest: Henry versus the machine. Henry won, but the effort killed him. In the words of the old folk song, he “died with his hammer in his hand.”

This legend illustrates the real anxiety many workers felt during the Industrial Revolution, a time when machines threatened to make human labor irrelevant. The digital age has sparked a similar wave of concern about the impact of automation and AI on labor markets. Eight in 10 American adults (82%) say that by 2050, robots and computers will definitely or probably do much of the work currently done by humans, according to a Pew Research Center survey from December 2018.

Automation notions

Americans aren’t feeling especially good about this prospect. The Pew survey found that some three-quarters of Americans (76%) expect inequality between rich and poor to increase as a result of job automation. Only a third (33%) expect widespread automation will create many new, better-paying jobs for humans.

While re-skilling programs are critical in helping many workers succeed in a changing job market, what you do away from your job may matter just as much.

These beliefs contradict much of what we know about the impact of labor-saving technology on employment. During the Industrial Revolution, machines powered by steam and electricity transformed work and disrupted labor markets in the short term. In the long run, the economy created millions of new factory and office jobs that replaced the agricultural and artisanal roles that had been automated out of existence.

There’s a solid economic explanation for this trend. By definition, labor-saving technology makes workers more productive. Rising productivity drives down the prices of goods and services, which naturally increases demand. Companies respond to this demand by hiring more workers, often in new industries that grow up around emerging tech.

The technologies of the digital age are disrupting today’s labor markets in comparable ways. About half of all work activities could be automated today using technology, according to research by the McKinsey Global Institute. McKinsey estimates that between now and 2030, between 400 million and 800 million workers could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs.

Pivot point

In the long run, McKinsey expects the economy to create enough new jobs to absorb all those displaced workers. However, as many as 375 million of them will need to switch occupational categories and learn new skills in order to stay employed.

In the long run we’re all dead, in the depressing words of the late British economist John Maynard Keynes. Academic predictions about future job creation are cold comfort to a factory worker who has just lost her job to a robot, or a call center employee who fears replacement by a chatbot.

Nobody wants to die like John Henry, fighting to keep pace with machines that excel at repetitive grunt work. That’s why humans need to concentrate on developing skills that differentiate them from computers. These skills include leadership, empathy, and creativity.

One great promise of digital workflows and AI is that they will open more space for humans to be creative at work by taking over mundane, repeatable tasks like approving an expense report, onboarding a new employee, prioritizing a customer complaint, or changing a network password. The good news is that you can develop your creativity by taking time off from work.

We all know the reasons why people need to take time off—and why more companies are insistent that employees not only take vacations but unplug while they are away. Daimler, for example, gives workers the option of auto-deleting all work email when they are on vacation, according to a 2014 report in the Atlantic. More recently, a number of countries and companies have endorsed “right to disconnect” laws that reestablish the often-blurred boundary between life and work.

A large body of research shows that periodic unplugging refreshes the brain, improving creativity and general cognitive functionality. Workers who use vacation time to let their minds wander can strengthen creative and cognitive abilities (such as sociability) that differentiate us from machines.

In other words, while on-the-job training and re-skilling programs are critical in helping many workers succeed in a changing job market, what you do away from your job may matter just as much. Think about that next time you fire up the grill.