Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC
In the modern world, automation is moving at an accelerating pace across almost every industry. We see examples of this in education, health care, retailing, transport, construction, banking, insurance, call-centres, care of the elderly and farming. In little over a decade we may be moving around in self-drive cars. At this very moment, automation is already in the workplace in the shape of robots which replace human assemblers and machines which replace bank clerks.
These technologies, although they will create some new jobs, are bound to create huge levels of unemployment. Many would argue that governments, businesses, trade unions and the Churches are not focused sufficiently on the long-term impact of automation on human wellbeing.1
Certainly, these institutions are not giving enough support to those who will be most affected by these extraordinary technological changes. A report published in April 2018 by the Department of the Taoiseach entitled “Automation and Occupations: A Comparative Analysis of the Impact of Automation on Occupations in Ireland”, predicted that during the next two decades, two in every five Irish jobs will be at risk from robots and related new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). This study predicts that these jobs are more likely to be lost in education, health, social work, information and technology and communications.
This of course is a global phenomenon: An article in The Guardian in August 2018, reported that six million workers in Britain are worried about their jobs and they feel that they could be replaced by a machine within a decade or so.2 Less than one tenth of the workers were satisfied that the government was doing enough to address this situation. Even among trade unionists, 16% said that that the trade unions in the workplace are not doing enough to ensure that technology will improve the conditions of the workers and not simply replace them.
Rather than be seeing this as talking about the future, we are currently seeing companies opting for automation. Early in 2018, the online retailer, Shop Direct warned that 2,000 jobs were at risk as they moved into a new distribution centre. 3
Economists fear that lower-income workers involved in manual and service jobs will be the first to be hit, but automation will also claw away at middle class jobs. This will put more responsibility on the shoulders of governments as more and more people become unemployed. Most Churches have not considered how they will organise pastoral care if 40 percent of the people in the parish are not involved in paid employment, which seem to be where this technology is taking us.
“Automation and Occupations: A Comparative Analysis of the Impact of Automation on Occupations in Ireland”, Department of the Taoiseach, April 28th2018. Caroline O’Doherty, “Two in five Irish jobs at risk from robots,” Irish Examiner, July 9th2018.https://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/two-in-five-irish-jobs-at-risk-from-robots-472674.html
Richard Partington, “More than 6m workers fear being replaced by machines –report,” The Guardian, August 6th2018. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/aug/06/more-than-6m-workers-fear-being-replaced-by-machines-report