Automation is taking over more and more jobs

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.


[1]“Automation and Occupations: A Comparative Analysis of the Impact of Automation on Occupations in Ireland”, Department of the Taoiseach, April 28th2018Caroline O’Doherty, “Two in five Irish jobs at risk from robots,” Irish Examiner, July 9th2018.

[2][2]Richard Partington, “More than 6m workers fear being replaced by machines –report,” The Guardian, August 6th2018.


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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    Although there are also arguments that emerging technologies will create more jobs than they destroy, it seems inevitable that huge upheavals are coming that will challenge the well-being of those whose hard-won work skills become obsolete. See e.g.:

    As ever Sean McDonagh is bang-on-target in emphasising the need for a complete re-think on pastoral care in these circumstances. And, strangely enough, our priests in Ireland are currently receiving essential experiential training in how it feels to have society tell us that we are ‘surplus to requirements’!

    But does our value as individuals truly depend upon social feedback – the waving by someone else of some flag that says ‘Success!’?

    For me, a retiree in 1996 from teaching for health reasons, the answer is an emphatic ‘No’ – because the Creed, the never-failing source of my ‘wellbeing’, says exactly the opposite. Never did any human receive a more emphatic ‘useless’ verdict from ‘society’ than Jesus of Nazareth!

    That non-alignment of the judgement of God and ‘society’ was apparently ended by ‘Christendom’ – the sixteen (or so) centuries of social prestige for churches and clergymen that have come to an end only recently in Ireland. However, ongoing events are revealing all of the illusions that went with that era: it was that very social elevation of the clergyman that created the potential for disaster now unwinding. You cannot ‘fall from grace’ if you have no ‘social position’ to fall from!

    The most important ‘work’ we all do is the maintenance of close (and especially intergenerational) relationships – and current employment culture is too often a huge barrier to that very need (vide ‘the unaffordable cost of child and elder care’!).

    Where could I go to have a discussion about all this with those interested in revising ‘pastoral care’? What tales I could tell about the necessity of experiences of apparent dislocation and disaster (humiliation) for deep Christian faith development – but the author(s) of Ecclesiasticus got there centuries before me:

    “My child, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. … do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him and do not leave him … since gold is tested in the fire, and the chosen in the furnace of humiliation.” (Ecclus. 2: 1-5)

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Automation is simply making certain jobs redundant or obsolete, as innovation/automation have always done. The hope is that automation will create a cooperative-scale economic explosion. We can go from global to local in a swift transition these days – I feel it might only take 7 years to completely transform the planet but there would have to be a prerogative put in play – a municipal charter that all ages and ranks could employ. The chains that bind us come with a key. Unlocking it would take local communities combating the plastics issue while focusing on self-sustainability everywhere we can.

    It is quite simple in its application but would need the Roman Catholic Church’s backing to move to scale. The Zero Marginal Cost Society that Jeremy Rifkin proposes is on our doorstep. We need to stop thinking “Who is going to fund this?” and start thinking “How can I help fund this?”. There are people in our midst who are working to usher in this transition. “A Suffering Church” – yes, simply a symptom of a greater problem. “What did we learn from the papal visit?” Papal visits can too serve as a distraction from the greater problem. These problems don’t go away after a visit from our spiritual mentors.

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Sean, I’m not sure where these jobs are going to come from – countries are already staking their claim at attempting universal basic income for a reason. The article provided is written under the assumption that “capitalism” is going to survive this ordeal of “the hollowing out of the middle class”. I’m here to say that it will not.

    In a parallel existence, the blue-collar demographic could suddenly become the community cooperative that owns this automated, open source production within a dynamic governance structure. With energy now being collected from readily available, renewable sources (wind/sun/tidal/geo-thermal) there is nothing stopping small communities from focusing on local production and with automation, this could become a volunteer-based economy.

    Community success needs to be open source – knowledge is a common property – production can be decentralised and cooperatively driven now. 3-D printed products attached to open source framework can free societies from high cost living, all the while promoting sustainable practices, a local food production, and stabilising the economy so that there is no longer a 1% and a 99%. We live in one indivisible economy. There is no way to divide us.

    We have an inherent value as individuals but it can’t be monetised – its only measure of success is by examining what we hand off to future generations – have we created a hell on earth for future generations? Yes. How long will it take to fix it? With the Roman Catholic Church on board, 7 years. Without each member of the Church contributing in some way to this transformation, we are doomed – it’s a good thing this is not going to be our legacy – as we have been called on in the past to act, we shall act again.

    So yes, we shall all be useless until we hold onto our faith and jump into these small acts. We have to transform this Church into a change-maker for that coming generation – the time is now.

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