By Tom Staunton

More and more careers are being made obsolete by robots, and this could potentially become a social justice issue

“Automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name” states one respondent from a recent Pew Institute survey. Terrifying in what way? “I’m not sure that jobs will disappear altogether,” another respondent for the same report states, “but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now.” This sort of fear around the effect that technology is having on the job market may seem novel to us, but views like these have a rich heritage going back to the time of the Luddites.

Luddites and the changing labour market

The Luddites were 19th century artisans who protested against the mechanisation of the English textile industry by attacking and destroying the machinery they saw as replacing the need for their skilled labour.

Luddites, though commonly used as an insult these days, increasingly seem to have had a point. Advances in technology and automation destroy jobs. Just as the invention of the power loom reduced the need for the artisans labour, so the invention of the motor engine affected a whole host of jobs related to horses, and the internet is moving shopping off the high street and online, clearly changing the job market with it.

We may be just catching our breath after the first shocks of how the Internet is affecting the labour market, but the next phase is upon us already. There is a growing worry about what advances in robotics may mean for the labour market. In a 2013 TED talk, Andrew McAfee predicts that a rapid escalation in robots’ abilities is going to challenge the existence of a raft of traditional jobs. Think what the Google car may mean for taxi drivers and public transport workers. What will Siri mean for customer service? What will the Roomba cleaning robot mean for cleaners? I find it slightly surprising that we still have people actually working in the kitchens of fast food restaurants. How long until robots replace them?

This should be particularly worrying for anyone concerned with reducing social inequality. One of the main things that the jobs listed above have in common is that they are often taken by less qualified individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds. It stands to reason that if you are less educated with fewer skills to offer the workplace, then your job is likely to be more mechanical and less interpersonal in nature. It is exactly these sort of jobs that robots are more likely to replace. Robots, therefore, will potentially widen social inequality.

Now the jury may still be out on whether this will lead to a short-term blip followed by re-allocation of individuals to better jobs or a long-term trend of increased unemployment, but I am not asking that question here. What I’m wondering is, if robots will change the labour market and lead to at least some unemployment, how do we support the individuals this change affects? If the individuals that are likely to be affected are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this change would be particularly concerning and a social justice issue.

Political solutions: changing the structure

I feel that as careers professionals (especially those working in the education or welfare sectors), it is not just enough to support individuals. We must also look for ways to influence the environment within which these individuals exist. There are a number of things careers professionals could be campaigning for.

  • Strengthening workers’ rights. When businesses choose to replace a human with a machine, they choose to prioritize business needs over the needs of an individual. Businesses need to stay competitive, but governments could make redundancy harder to claim, to make sure that when a business claims workers are being let go over necessity, this is actually the case.
  • Elongating education. What if the career you have educated yourself for ceases to exist? In such a world, better ways of funding public education as an ongoing process over a lifetime seems a necessity. After all, paying for retraining is a better long-term economic investment than paying unemployment relief.
  • Ongoing career development services. If education is to be extended over a lifetime, then it makes sense that careers support follows suit. A “careers education for the young” view assumes that people mostly stay in the professions they choose early in their careers, something which technological unemployment seems to challenge.

Personal solutions: supporting individuals

Political solutions can be vital because of how far reaching they are, but for careers professionals working on the coal face, the immediate question is always how can I help this individual in front of me?

  • Moving away from matching to adapting. Increasingly careers theory appears to have moved past the idea that individuals can be matched to particular job roles with any sort of long-term certainty. Despite this, most careers work (at least in the UK where I am based) on the ground is still based on matching, i.e. the belief you can rationally fit someone in to a future career. In the face of rapid change in the job market, individuals need to be able to cope with potential redundancy, identify emerging roles and pick up the skills needed. This makes a strong case for adapting being the key long-term management skill we can give to any individual.
  • Encouraging engagement with technology. One of the other impacts that comes in with increased automation in the workplace is that people will be expected to work alongside robots as parts of roles becoming automated. I feel it should be a goal of career counselling and education to make people more open to change and more willing to adopt practices they may need in the new robot age.
  • Focussing on higher order skills. Predictions about the future of work often seem the realms of the mad and the foolish, but we can be sure that jobs will always exist where humans cannot invent automated ways of doing the same thing. Therefore, when young people make choices about their futures, they should be encouraged to think about building skills and focusing on progression routes where higher order skills are needed that robots (as of yet) cannot do.

Although the exact nature of change may still be unclear, it does seem a certainty that technology may be a continuing threat to the labour market in general, and the less advantaged in particular. As careers professionals we need to be forward-thinking in pushing for policy and practice that responds to this sort of change.


Tom Staunton is a Careers Consultant at the University of Derby in the UK. He has particular interest in how students learning about careers theory can aid their development. He also regularly blogs at and is very keen to be found on Twitter (@tomstaunton84) and LinkedIn.