When are the robots going to take my job?
April 26, 2016 7:11 AM   Subscribe

So it occurs to me that my entire household is supported by two jobs vulnerable to automation. How long do we have, in your opinion? What steps can we take to make sure we don't end up begging in the street?

My household is supported by skilled secretarial work and skilled (requires financial certification) call center work. How long before Viv takes my job and Amelia takes my co-housing partner's?

How fast can this type of transition happen across industries? Do we have a year? Two years? Five?

And what can we do? We are both pink collar workers; how can we move into skilled work that will be protected from automation? Like many people, we do not have a lot of money for retraining. We're also forty-ish, so if we spend some years retraining, we may be too old to get hired anyway.

Seriously, I have been falling into a huge depression lately because I'm afraid I'll be a beggar in my fifties. I'm worried about how to rehome my cat. I'm thinking about how I'll have to sell the furniture my grandparents left me just to make a couple months of housing costs. Hope me, please.
posted by Frowner to Work & Money (43 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Move up into management? Someone still has to manage the people not replaced by machines and those are very transferable skills.

Technical writing/editing?
posted by Jacqueline at 7:22 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry if this was triggered by the UBI thread. I'm generally in favor of robots if we can manage the social transition correctly (pretty much the Iain M. Banks utopian Culture novels' premise) but that is still quite far off - lifetimes away.

And even if the transition starts sooner than one would expect, there will always be a market for people with experience in the jobs they're doing now. The way the transition will play out, I bet, is that the costs of training new workers will look like a bad investment against the cost of robots, so the new jobs will go away.

So I don't think you are in any danger of your job suddenly being replaced by a robot secretary! That's not something worth worrying about.

(I'm not going to diagnose your depression or prescribe fixes over the internet, but you should consider talking to someone qualified to offer you advice.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 7:22 AM on April 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm no expert on industries or automation and I don't know what your specialty is. That said, I firmly believe there will always be a place in IT for humans -- not because tasks can't be automated but because people like other people. I know my folks would much rather "talk to a person" than deal with any kind of streamlined automated service.

The people who require IT's help are often not very tech savvy, so the idea of inputting data into some algorithm is daunting. Hope this helps.
posted by smashthegamestate at 7:29 AM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Here is a cynical but maybe comforting answer: You have until the last old powerful dudes die. For every startup that is exciting to minimize human error with automation, there is an old school company with a senior VP who isn't going to "talk to a machine" and still has human workers doing everything from booking appointments to creating presentations to choosing flights.
Until those senior people keel over, there will be a need for their human underlings.
posted by rmless at 7:30 AM on April 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

Changes brought about by technology are dang near impossible to predict. Sure, tech and or robots are liable to kill some jobs. But it is just as likely that more new jobs will be created. And frankly, no job is completely secure. Is a robot doing surgery all that hard to imagine?
Do relax and make smart decisions. But don't stress over something you don't have control over.
posted by jtexman1 at 7:30 AM on April 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm also a pink collar worker in the non-profit sector, but I don't think my job is in jeopardy. The stuff I do ranges from opening and sorting mail, logging checks on paper and then logging them into a non-profit fundraising database (could have twelve checks going to twelve different campaigns in one day), pulling data from about a million sources and condensing it into one easy to understand chart (and understanding how that data all works together and why it's valuable), working with about 24 schools and the different personnel in those schools, knowing intimately how the non-profit works, project management (a biggie), meeting organization (and set up and tear down and catering), working with several different bosses of different levels, etc. etc. etc.

If what you're doing is "merely"* personal assistant stuff, then yes, I would maybe consider trying to move up into project management or more administrative specialist stuff. But if what you're doing looks more like what I'm doing, I think you're okay. I mean, I read the Viv article but there is no way that app could replace me. Plus my non-profit probably can't afford to replace me with tech!

Oh, also, many of the managers I've known are older than me and really don't like learning how to use tech. That's been my experience, and they value me because I'm willing and eager to learn all that stuff for them and just do it instead of teaching them how to.

*I say "merely" not to minimize what you do, but to point out that Viv really is rather limited and doesn't seem to me to cover all the stuff that admins do.
posted by cooker girl at 7:31 AM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

A couple-three things. 1) I agree with RedOrGreen that this is a decades long process that is just beginning, so you have plenty of time and 2) the social upheaval that will occur if the transition is much shorter than that will be so much vaster than just impacting your family - it will impact nearly every family on Earth! - that the social support structures around us will have to change just as quickly. That may mean a utopian life of leisure or it may mean a dystopian kind of neo-serfdom, but it's not going to be you and your partner selling their furninture on Craigslist. We (the 99%) will all be in whatever it is together. Finally 3) this is exactly the kind of thing I obsess over when I am struggling with my depression and/or anxiety, and I also agree with RedOrGreen that it's not a bad idea to speak to a mental health professional about these issues.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:33 AM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

The cost of automation is huge and every time there's a Big Technological Changeover, they somehow fuck it up. Check out all the companies using Intranets designed by companies during the dot com bubble that went under, but the companies still have to use these ancient (by our standards) computing platforms because that's how it works and it's too expensive to do anything different, especially if you're government, or non-profit or just Not Microsoft.

It would be an incredible amount of money and time to can all the workers of one sort and replace them with the rudimentary artificial intelligences we have to day. It also wouldn't be worthwhile because I've seen articles like the ones you've posted on a biweekly basis for twenty years.

People also don't trust robots. Think of how many times you've yelled OPERATOR at a talking phone tree. In NYC, our trains could be running entirely without a conductor, but that freaks people out so we got this dude that doesn't do much up in the front of the train because people can't cope with the idea of a self-driving train, a technology much of the rest of the world as adopted.

So tl;dr, you don't have much to be afraid of unless you're already in a bleeding-edge tech job that has Too Much Money. Otherwise, and for the time being, the cost of your replacing you, Frowner, is too high for just about any other company.

(Obviously this conversation would be very different if you were a steelmill worker or a car assembler or something of those lines.)
posted by griphus at 7:40 AM on April 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'd actually argue that you're safe - well as safe as anybody can be in a culture where capitalism has turned literally every human thought and action into some kind of commodifiable activity that someone else can extract profit from... okay, sorry, that's not helping.

But I think automation has already replaced pretty much all the secretarial jobs it's going to replace. It's not as simple as "a robot is going to do the same job you do now." Automation in this case replaced jobs by making it possible for people to do the tasks they used to have secretaries do for them themselves more costs-effectively. People write their own emails and reports and stuff now. They can book their own restaurant tables. They can call someone themselves instead of having their secretary do it. People who used to have their own secretaries, or would send things to a pool, now can do them themselves from their desktops. Those jobs already went away.

The fact that you still have one indicates that they didn't all go away because various people have reasons for still wanting a person doing their secretarial work. There's a guy at my company that has an executive assistant because it shows everyone how important his time is. Honestly. She sends out his broadcast emails from her own address over her name. It's stupid as shit and it really isn't as impressive as he seems to think it is. But that person has a job.

You always need to keep your skills sharp and pay attention to what's going on in the world. But I wouldn't think the sky is falling just yet.
posted by Naberius at 7:45 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe you are looking for someone with more technical knowledge than this, but I will just say that the Guardian article you linked to strikes me as a silly puff piece that skims over the vastly difficult problems inherent in creating an AI with natural language abilities, never mind the incredible logistical issue of integrating the software into every piece of technology from refrigerators to cars. This guy 'dreams,' 'imagines,' and 'intimates,' but nothing about this article suggests to me that the future he's imagining is anywhere close to becoming a reality. None of us are completely safe from change, but pink-collar workers whose jobs are premised on in-person interaction seem as safe as anyone can be.

That said, I hope this isn't an inappropriately personal thing to say, but you've always struck me as someone whose deeply thought-out (and brilliantly expressed) politics coincide with their depression in a very complex way - you argue yourself into positions of bleak hopelessness with a kind of ruthless efficiency that can be almost scary to witness. I know this probably doesn't mean much coming from a rando on the internet, but I am pretty sure that even if there was a sea change in the role of personal assistants over the next decade, you are nonetheless a person with enormous brainpower who could do many jobs very very well.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:57 AM on April 26, 2016 [32 favorites]

I think your worry is at a point where seeing a therapist would be a good idea. Even if automation does eventually result in job insecurity for you, your concern about it now is having a serious negative impact on your life. Worrying about having to rehome your cat really says to me that you are taking this super hard. And that isn't necessary. You can start planning for the future, but it sounds as if you're in a panic mode that it will be hard to get yourself out of. And being in panic mode isn't ultimately going to help you deal with this. (I have a tendency toward panic myself, so please don't feel like I'm judging you. It's a common reaction, but it is not going to help and can actually keep you from making plans.)

That said, I work in an area where many jobs have been lost in the auto industry. I once went for a massage, and the massage therapist was a laid-off auto worker. He said he was tired of the instability of the auto industry, so decided to get massage certification. I thought that seemed like a good decision for anyone who is really worried. Massage therapy can't be outsourced, and it will be a very, very long time before robots can do It. And if you're in good health, your age won't be as problematic in that field (though you will need to take super good care of yourself to avoid physical problems from doing the same thing all day). Working as a personal trainer would be the same. Others can probably think of similar jobs.
posted by FencingGal at 8:06 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

There often needs to be someone who translates what the management wants into what the robots should be doing. Even you aren't directly programming the robots, you can be a project manager that makes sure the instructions provided are being followed to the letter and chases down the actual meaning of the initial requirements when understandings differ. Once the automation is in place, troubleshooting and auditing still need to take place. Depending on the job, some of this training can be done in your current role. Institutional knowledge is very useful in this type of role, since you know how things should be done, how they are actually done and if/who to call when they don't match.
posted by soelo at 8:12 AM on April 26, 2016

You can start building a freelance career/consulting. Figure out how companies can use your expertise as a consultant, make a website advertising your services, update your linked-in. You can speak at conferences or in classes to establish your credentials as an expert. You don't have to actually pursue any work right now but think about how you could if you had to. Once you have a idea of what expertise you want to focus on, you can contact managers and ask about what problems they're facing and how they could use someone with your skills to help their business become more efficient. For example, maybe you could do an audit of their internal processes and help with automation.
posted by betsybetsy at 8:13 AM on April 26, 2016

So, my current job is deploying these sorts of AI agents. The good news is that you're probably safe for a few years.

There are a lot of overblown claims out there, but the fact is that these agents still can't replace all humans yet. They can certainly cut down on the number of human operators, reduce call times, etc, but mostly by weeding out the easy, "level one" type issues. Since you and your partner have extra skills, you're probably not in the line of fire just yet. Plus, as previous comments say, these systems are still pretty expensive and not all companies/execs are onboard with the idea.

That said, if you get any hint that an automated system is coming down the pipe, I would strongly encourage you to try to get on the project as a stakeholder. That way, you can maneuver to a role that puts you in a place where you're between management and the machine, or at worst, get a heads up before the hammer falls.
posted by tau_ceti at 8:20 AM on April 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

I work in a position where a lot of job responsibilities that used to be done by humans are now done by robots. However, because they are done by robots, that doesn't mean people no longer have jobs-- it just means that a lot of our jobs now consist of managing things on behalf of the robots, because the humans who have to prepare robot-friendly materials really suck at it.

So if I need a document (to be processed by a robot), I can give instructions to humans, but 85% of the time they will fail to follow them correctly. If the document they provide to me is missing a few vital pieces of information, the robot can't handle it. So there still need to be humans to step in, oversee, and manage the process, even if robots are taking some of the nitty gritty work at this point.

This takes place at almost every step of my job. A huge portion of my work involves conversations along the lines of "oh crap, the robot screwed up" or "this person sent the robot the wrong file, so now we have to deal with this as humans" or "we need something the robots don't have protocols for, so here is how we'll handle it".

A lot of my work is very similar to your work, I think-- and if anything, I feel like robots robotting around makes my job more secure, rather than less. The more experience I have with attempts at automation, the less confidence I have in its ability to replace humans in anything other than the most menial and automatic of tasks.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 8:44 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Increase your skill set, the advantage humans have over robots is flexibility. The letter opening robot can't answer the phone, The payroll robot , can't handle delicate HR situations. At least not without retool & reprogramming. A flexible human that can do all those things quickly & easily without expensive tech support is going to be worth way more than a robot. Small businesses are not going to be able to afford multiple robots in any case & will need humans for years.

Also go see someone about your depression, seriously, even if your fears are founded, which I'm not sure they are, trying to solve the issue while depressed isn't going to work. The best thing you can do to keep yourself employed is get your depression treated. After that, then you can work out a battle plan.
posted by wwax at 8:45 AM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think automation has already replaced pretty much all the secretarial jobs it's going to replace. It's not as simple as "a robot is going to do the same job you do now." Automation in this case replaced jobs by making it possible for people to do the tasks they used to have secretaries do for them themselves more costs-effectively. People write their own emails and reports and stuff now. They can book their own restaurant tables. They can call someone themselves instead of having their secretary do it. People who used to have their own secretaries, or would send things to a pool, now can do them themselves from their desktops.

And even here, a lot of the managers still ask their secretaries to be the ones to book restaurant tables, type up reports, buy flowers for the clients' wives, etc. for them. The fact that my last boss had the ability to book his own table through opentable.com is a separate issue from whether my last boss had the time to do it.

And that is just the simple stuff. Viv will never be able to do any of the following things:

* Scan a number of reports into a single PDF file - while simultaneously keeping an eye on the file size so as not to overtax the company's email constraints - and then send those reports out to 50-odd members of the board of overseers, while simultaneously remembering who wants you to send it to them and who wants you to send it to their secretaries instead
* negotiate with the weird delivery guy from the catering company about where to put the sandwich platter for the board meeting
* troubleshoot the Powerpoint that went fritzy because the 86 year old co-chair of the board accidentally hit something on the computer with his elbow and he then did more stuff to try to "fix it" but no longer remembers what he did
* run four peoples' passports up to the Kuala Lampur consulate to get their visa applications in in time for an upcoming trip
* Immediately be able to withdraw $144 in cash from a nearby bank to cover the visa fees after the consulate says the money orders for the fees were filled out wrong
* Decipher hastily scribbled notes from a meeting to type them up for distribution
* pre-emptively assess whether the office needs more paper clips, toner, notepads, staples, file folders, etc. and place an order to re-stock it while simultaneously keeping an eye on the budget to make sure you don't go over
* Figure out why the heck your expenses analysis report shows that you are 600% over budget on car services
* Politely refuse a lunch invitation from a guy that your boss is trying to avoid without him KNOWING that your boss is trying to avoid him
* file expense reports that include ten different countries, six different currencies, and five different pending projects, each with their own codes, regulations, and budget caps, while simultaneously complying with the company policies on both maximum daily allowances for food and on when you need to provide receipts
* clean up after the office tech team finally removed a broken printer and spilled toner all over everything

....None of that is an exaggeration. Those are all things I've had to do as an admin in different places. Viv ain't gonna be able to do that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:57 AM on April 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

I'm no expert in AI or NLP but I work in the same building as people who are. The support staff are not quaking in their boots about being replaced by AI. That level of automation is decades away.

I agree with pretentious illiterate and also with tau_ceti in the sense that you need to become more of an agile opportunist.

FWIW I worked in pink-collar work throughout the 1990s and always had to work night and day to maintain my skills enough to stay employable. It was never going to be possible to just be a bump on a log and still get hired. Instead of planning ahead for how you're going to be destitute, try planning ahead for how you're going to have more marketable skills than anyone knows what to do with.

FWIalsoWorth, you remind me of my friend who said there was no point improving his skills because the housing crisis was looming (this was well before 2008, and I agreed with him about the housing crisis), because once that happened, there would be 100% unemployment. Even during the Great Depression unemployment was at 25%. The housing crisis happened, he is still employed (in the same job).

You also remind me of a "Dear Cathy and Claire" letter to Jackie magazine that I read when I was 13: "Some people say I should stay on at school and do a few A-levels" (i.e. stay at school after age 16) "but I really don't see the point [because unemployment was high]." There was a lot of focus in the media about young people's poor employment prospects, and obviously it was all true and obviously deserving of tons of media attention, but it was also adults wallowing in hopelessness at teenagers' expense, if you see what I mean?

There's an area in between "Prosperity Gospel! Take that lemon and make a glass of lemonade!" and "we are all hurtling helplessly through the void of a meaningless universe" and you are in that in-between area and you need to wake up to reality. The very fact that you fear unemployment (for both of you!) indicates that you are employed NOW. The fact that you have decided you'll be unemployable in the future indicates that you are employable NOW and have some ability to retrain NOW. You are self-supporting NOW and are not a beggar NOW. You are providing a good home for your cat NOW. And so on.

When I was 18 and about to take a modern-languages degree, I was skeptical about my prospects for becoming a translator or interpreter, since to do either you needed a postgraduate degree, to be a translator you needed a technical speciality which I saw no path to acquiring, and you needed an IBM-compatible computer and to know how to use it which might as well have been a Space Shuttle for all the hope I had of that, and to be a conference interpreter you needed 200 hours of closed-shop experience, you couldn't earn a living as a translator, and conference interpreters had a notably high suicide rate as a profession and apparently they tended to use guns which suggested they meant business.

Well, I explained all that to my parents, and they said "you will never get anywhere with this defeatist attitude!" They didn't understand the concept of entry barriers. After all, in the 1950s my mum's friend had upped and gone to Strasbourg to become an interpreter just like that, so why couldn't I do the same and decide, oh, I think I'll be an interpreter today?

Thing is, I was right about that stuff at the time. I have also never gotten a job on the basis of my modern languages degree, because knowing two foreign languages is simply not a marketable skill in and of itself. In that sense, my fears were justified, and yet I still managed to stay employed throughout my twenties with the skills I did have, so it wasn't a problem. Now, here's a thing I wasn't right about:

In 1988, I saw a news piece on the BBC about automated translation software, in which they predicted that these systems would replace human translators by 1997. I expected to graduate in 1992. I was deeply gloomy about that. My dad said "you will never get anywhere with this defeatist attitude!"

Now that one, he was right about. There are no automated translation services capable of replacing a human translator at this point, so that BBC prediction is 19 years late and counting.

Thing is, I was 18 then. If the BBC told me my skills were going to be replaced by automation within the next decade who was I to disbelieve them? But you're in your 40s. It is irrational to read a single fluff piece about AI, and jump to the conclusion that you're going to be destitute within the next few years as a result. Your anxiety and depression are whispering poison in your ear. Nobody of your age and experience should be catastrophizing like this. Please show this question to your therapist, or get a therapist if you don't have one right now.
posted by tel3path at 9:06 AM on April 26, 2016 [10 favorites]

My flippant answer is Lrn2Code.

My more thought out answer: The world will always need people to control the robots. And, in fairness, it's not really the programming of the AIs that will be vital for individual businesses, it will be people who know how to work with them in the context of the business.

In theory, there shouldn't be a need for Salesforce.com or SAP consultants/business analysts, but the fact of the matter is, the more powerful these tools get, the more complex they are, and the harder it is to integrate them into a business that is up and running.

There's also a tendency for administrative staff type folks to get kind of set in their ways and not be open to changing. We have an admin in our office right now who refuses to use Excel, and produces tabular reports exclusively in Word. She's older, and I'd be worried about her if she needed to find something new (because of her history here, I doubt she'll need to worry about that before retirement, but not all organizations would respect that loyalty). But you don't want to be like her.

So, take a look at the tools that your office is using right now. Are you the resident expert at them? Or do you need to put in a ticket with IT or a business analyst to, say, onboard a new customer, or add a new widget type to the database? Can you request to take on more tasks of that nature? What about other tools that other organizations are using -- what do you know about Constant Contact or Mailchimp? What's your organization's social media strategy?

And then look outside: how do other organizations run? What tools are other folks in your position using? Can you learn about them?

At your age, you want to avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket (where are all the Lotus Notes business analysts these days?) but if you can get a decent familiarity with a wide variety of tools, you'll be able to satisfy the keyword searches on the AIs that are taking the first pass on your resume.

we do not have a lot of money for retraining

There is a surprising amount of free-to-cheap training out there for a lot of stuff, especially if you forgo certifications -- and so many certifications aren't worth the paper they are printed on -- but it will cost you time. The skilled secretary in your household may be able to negotiate with their boss about desires for more responsibility/fulfillment and maybe the organization might be willing to spring for some training, especially if the employee is willing to do the legwork and can show how it will be beneficial for the organization.

The financially certified call center worker might be more on their own -- most call center jobs don't have the downtime to spend a couple of hours on Lynda over the course of a work day, for example -- but can that certification be rolled up into some other kind of work? Sales? Management?

To address your depression (and what reads like anxiety): The fact that you're thinking about this puts you far ahead of the game compared to others in your working/living situation. And you're in a position where you can think about what's next while you are currently working and making ends meet. That is huge, and awesome, so I hope that you can feel heartened by that.

You are, however, I think catastrophizing though, and maybe some of that energy can be devoted to actual planning. There's the career planning stuff that I addressed above, but then there's also just life planning. It might be helpful to chart things out. How does your current monthly/yearly/quarterly balance statement look? Are you making enough to save a little? Are you saving? Do you have an emergency fund? How long would it last if you cut your spending to the absolute bone? Does your house have room for another roommate? Could you make that room if you had to? Look at your social security statement -- will social security be enough for you to live on if you retire at 70? 67? 62? Figure out when you want to retire, and how much you'll need to supplement SS when you get there.

Would it make you feel better to know that you had 3/6/12 months of runway cash saved to live off of if you did lose your job? If so, can you take extreme (and temporary!) measures now to get there? I'm thinking crazy stuff like moving your belongings to the living room and airbnbing your bedroom for a while, selling everything that you aren't currently using so you can bank the cash, waitressing or working some shitty minimum wage job nights and weekends for 6 months, etc. This wouldn't be sustainable, obviously, but maybe choosing to feel some temporary pain to give yourselves a cushion could help you feel better.

I remember from other comments that you've made that you two own (along with the bank) your home. That's good, it means your housing costs are pretty stable for the foreseeable future. But what if you guys did lose your incomes and couldn't make the mortgage? What's your plan for staying in your house as long as possible (foreclosures take a *long* time, longer, if the owners know how to stretch things out).

My point here is that because you guys are currently working and (I assume) financially in the black (even if you're not saving), time is on your side. You don't have to worry about selling your furniture now (unless you would like to do so in order to build an emergency fund). You can deal with rehoming your cat when you get to the point that you're actually missing mortgage payments (and, if it makes you feel better now, I promise you that if you can't find a home for your cat in the period between 1st missed payment and eviction, I will take your cat and you can come and visit him or her).
posted by sparklemotion at 9:15 AM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, are you typing this into a computer that you own? In that case, go to the library, get out some Dummies books, and viola! Free retraining.
posted by tel3path at 9:19 AM on April 26, 2016

Okay, but here is the thing*:

It's mefi standard practice to cite the Oxford report on automation, and to say that it's all happening faster than we think, and to talk about how there's going to be massive structural displacement of workers. Why do people say that all the time if it's not [broadly] true and not happening [fairly] soon? What about this, and why do they use that $20/hour cutoff? (I don't know many people who make more than $20/hour, but then I live in flyover country, so skilled work isn't as highly paid.)

In short, how can I possibly believe that my job won't vanish when all the time I'm hearing that it will, and from fairly reputable sources?

Also, if my job vanishes, there will be all kinds of pressure on the fields I could move into, because everyone will be trying to retrain. That's what worries me about the "learn to code" stuff - everyone is learning to code, and who wouldn't prefer a shiny, feminine 25 year old to me?

Although honestly massage sounds better in some ways - I could do some kind of fat-people-friendly massage thing, maybe, since I bet that a lot of people are like me and do not get massages because they don't want others touching their imperfect bodies.

*I am listening to everyone's advice - I'm just pushing back a little here so that I don't lie awake tonight and think "If only I had raised [X] point, everyone's advice would have been totally different, my life is going to be a disaster after all because I didn't ask the question right". Don't think for a minute that I am not paying attention to all the advice, from the training/skills part to the "time to head back to the therapist, maybe I'm more depressed than I realize" part.
posted by Frowner at 9:24 AM on April 26, 2016

Also, sparklemotion, my cat is a very good cat. Should it come to that, you won't regret your generous offer!
posted by Frowner at 9:25 AM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's mefi standard practice to cite the Oxford report on automation, and to say that it's all happening faster than we think, and to talk about how there's going to be massive structural displacement of workers. Why do people say that all the time if it's not [broadly] true and not happening [fairly] soon?

For the same reason that people also made very convincing arguments that Communism, trickle-down economics, and bitcoin were good ideas. They all are good arguments - on paper, and in an ideal scenario. Reality and human nature, however, tend to get in the way of most theories and cause them to go pear-shaped.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:41 AM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Why do people say that all the time if it's not [broadly] true and not happening [fairly] soon?

You clicked the link/bought the newspaper/magazine you found it in, right? So that's half, and the other half is that all the "THE FUTURE IS NOW" stuff is straight-up PR for either the individuals being interviewed who can put "as seen in the New York Times!" or whatever half-baked product they're currently working on that has no release date and will likely not materialize at all, or be cannibalized into a completely different project automating something you don't have anything to do with.

The sources you are getting this from are not reliable because, again, I can show you issues of Popular Science from 1950 and Omni (or whatever)from 1985 that have flying cars and shit in them. As far as AI and robotics are concerned, we're currently maybe 10-20 years out from a Kittyhawk Flight-esque event. By the time this becomes a consumer product which is then implemented in such a wide range as to make your job totally automated, you will be long out of the picture.

...everyone is learning to code, and who wouldn't prefer a shiny, feminine 25 year old to me?

I'm not really big on the whole "learn to code" thing but one of the points of learning to code is that you get to understand how the technology works at a much deeper level than a "Computers" class or something like that. I learned to code for a few years and I have the very, very basics down but its effect on my thinking is something very valuable and transferable.

FINALLY, there is an industry that right this moment is on the brink of a revolution: trucking. Automated cars are getting better and better. I can't find it right now, but I believe the thing I read indicated that there is an overwhelming number of places in the USA that depend wholly on truck driving income in one way or another. So there's two things at play:

-Something as simple as navigating from Point A to Point B is still a problem not solved enough for people's comfort at this moment.
-There's going to be a lot of unemployed truck drivers long before there will be a lot of unemployed secretaries and you should pay attention to what happens to the truck drivers.
posted by griphus at 9:52 AM on April 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

uh obviously exclude the Oxford study from my list of unreliable sources.
posted by griphus at 9:53 AM on April 26, 2016

In short, how can I possibly believe that my job won't vanish when all the time I'm hearing that it will

I think you're cherry picking the facts from your sources. Yes, maybe you make less than $20/hour, but as you say, you are skilled labor, and skilled labor is hard to replace with robots unless it is skilled *and* repetitive.

From the tech insider article that you just linked:
Ian Pearson, author and fellow at the World Academy for Arts and Science, recently told Tech Insider that teachers, police officers, and people in management roles should feel secure in keeping their jobs. All three involve some form of complex human interaction that a machine can't replicate (at least not yet). Low-wage employees who perform the kinds of repeated tasks found on assembly lines are the ones most at risk of replacement.
Complex human interaction is the key. The more you have of it now, the more secure your job will be, and even better, the more you'll be able to be on notice when you job starts looking like it's in jeopardy. I don't think you are in the kind of role that can automate overnight -- could your boss subscribe to some SAAS thing and be up an running without you immediately? I doubt it.

Also, if my job vanishes, there will be all kinds of pressure on the fields I could move into, because everyone will be trying to retrain.

The trick is to move, or have your exit strategy prepared, before the job does, because yeah, you don't want to be competing for entry-level positions in your 40s or 50s. Which is why upward mobility in your current position, or looking to how you can leverage your skills to jump into something mid-level somewhere is is the thing to be doing now. Or, if you want to pivot to something completely different that has that magic combination of "can't be outsourced and robots suck at it" start thinking about and working towards that now.

Take massage therapy -- that's totally something you could study part-time, and then an run and evenings and weekends business until it's time to leave your current job. BUT, you also need to run the numbers and make sure it's something viable (how much does it cost to get certified? how much does a massage therapist tend to make? how will you feel about interacting with people's bodies all the time, even when your body isn't feeling so great?).

i love all cats even mean ones that don't love me
posted by sparklemotion at 9:54 AM on April 26, 2016

What I've done to chill out is reduce my expenses. This allows me to save money now for a potentially early retirement, and gives me experience in living on the cheap if it becomes necessary. I know that I can take care of a family of three on $15K per year, and have systems in place to make that sustainable, assuming I'm able to pick up some cash here and there.
posted by metasarah at 9:58 AM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

So, I'm an executive assistant, and I've spent a lot of time doing various admin type jobs.

Here's what journalists, and probably even startup founders, don't understand about what we do.

It's really cool to have software like Viv that can find out a whole bunch of stuff and give you options and cut out a lot of the workload of admin crap! But the bottom line is that corporate boss types don't want to do any of the boring admin type tasks like using this software. They just want everything to be arranged and decided for them.

For example, today there's a huge meeting with my company's huge international parent company. There are about 10 execs coming in, a conference room reserved, food catered, agendas printed out, etc. My bosses do not give a fuck about any of this. They didn't want to decide what day to have the meeting. They didn't want to get security passes for or email directions to any of the visiting attendees. They didn't want to figure out which conference room to use or what food to order or how many copies of the agenda we need. They just want to show up to the meeting and do their jobs. The rest is on me.

A lot of tech helps me make all of the above simpler. I didn't have to leave my desk to do any of the above tasks, and all in all it took one person about 3 hours of work to coordinate everything, rather than a team of secretaries a full week.

I think that more important than whether your career will become obsolete, it's important to realize that technology is going to change the nature of your job and what your workload is going to be. Worry less about the day your job stops existing. Worry more about what happens when you don't understand how to work with a system like Viv, or when you're told you now handle 5 execs rather than 1.
posted by Sara C. at 10:40 AM on April 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

Fine, let's take the Oxford Martin predictions without skepticism and assume 0% forecasting error (which isn't possible, but let's assume arguendo).

According to their projected timeline, you have the next "decade or two" to prepare for your own replacement by automation. So there is the answer to your question as posed: could be tomorrow, could be 10 years, could be 20.

I don't mean to be complacent and it's good that you're doing this risk management ahead of time. Depending on the nature of your job duties, you might have to get the lead out. So according to their projected timeline, what will you have to do? "Our model predicts a truncation in the current trend towards labour market polarisation, with computerisation being principally confined to low-skill and low-wage occupations. Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation – i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills."

Hmm, there's your answer, get some social skills, can't automate those! This is beginning to sound, to me, like a speculation anyone could have made, but I digress. Also, doesn't call centre work require a high level of social skill?

Okay, okay, I said no skepticism, let's look at the jobs they think have the lower probability of replacement. Okay now I'm skeptical and I can't hold it in. They list "First-Line Supervisors of Office and Administrative Support Workers" as having 0.014 probability of being automated. But who are they going to supervise, given their high probability of your job being replaced? This is a logical flaw.

And why specifically do they think your job is going to be replaced? "Furthermore, algorithms for big data are already rapidly entering domains reliant upon storing or accessing information, making it equally intuitive that office and administrative support occupations will be subject to computerisation." That's their reasoning. They say it's "intuitive" because your job is "reliant upon storing or accessing information". What that tells me is that they understand very little about what your job actually involves.

Nevertheless, account for the amount of low-skill information-retrieval work you do in a day, and consider that you might be better off becoming an Event Planner, which they estimate as having a low probability of being replaced by automation. Why? Event planning is something a lot of secretaries and executive assistants have to do as part of their duties, and executaries are for the chop according to their analysis. Event Planning also requires a lot of storing or accessing information. What do they have in their heads when they're thinking about these jobs? Is it deep ethnography?

As it turns out, no, their methodology was not based on ethnography, at least not their own. It is based on expert opinion, but all the job descriptions they looked at were on paper, not in the field. I draw your attention to section IV.A which describes how they did it. First, "we rely on O∗NET, an online service developed for the US Department of Labor". So far, so okay: "For our purposes, an important feature of O∗NET is that it defines the key features of an occupation as a standardised and measurable set of variables, but also provides open-ended descriptions of specific tasks to each occupation."

All right then. Now let's look at what they did with that:

"First, together with a group of ML researchers, we subjectively hand-labelled 70 occupations, assigning 1 if automatable, and 0 if not. For our subjective assessments, we draw upon a workshop held at the Oxford University Engineering Sciences Department, examining the automatability of a wide range of tasks. Our label assignments were based on eyeballing the O∗NET tasks and job description of each occupation. This information is particular to each occupation, as opposed to standardised across different jobs. The hand-labelling of the occupations was made by answering the question 'Can the tasks of this job be sufficiently specified, conditional on the availability of big data, to be performed by state of the art computer-controlled equipment'."

Oh my God

They did this analysis in a workshop? Based on expert but on-paper job descriptions for various occupations?

And their estimates are based on expert opinion of ML, sure, but are "conditional on the availability of big data" - WTF even is Big Data? I'm serious when I say this. It's like saying Pie In The Sky When You Die. It doesn't mean anything. That is my expert opinion, BTW and FWIW.

To me, this is not much more than a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but you're taking it like a disembodied hand just appeared and wrote "MENE, MENE, TEKEL UPHARSIN" on your whiteboard. You've got to stop this.

You realize that if you take this at face value you'd be better off becoming an actor than doing pink-collar work, so why don't you rush off and get some headshots now? Yeah. Besides which, animation. Because of CGI there was serious talk among actors a decade or two ago that they'd be replaced by computer simulations across the board, which is a lot more realistic of a fear IMHO, and yet that hasn't come to pass yet. Actors are still acting in flesh and blood. I wouldn't advise you to rush out and try to make a living as one, though.

Now, having read this, here's my opinion: do you need to keep your eye on the job market and keep tap dancing to stay current? Yes you do. Does that mean you need to sink all your time and money into a massive retraining program? OF COURSE NOT because you can probably add some new marketable skills with a minimum of retraining and expense in your spare time. Does any of this mean you should take the Oxford Martin paper as the writing on the wall and accept that your job is going to be replaced by automation within the next let's say 10 years, and there will be no other employment available to you, and that destitution is therefore inevitable? OF COURSE NOT because that's not a logical progression in any way.

Finally, and I can't emphasize this enough, the Oxford Martin paper is a FORECASTING paper which speculates about future possibilities. By definition, therefore, it cannot be talking about what WILL happen. It's talking about what a bunch of nerds worked out on the back of an envelope in an afternoon. Yes, their envelope data was based on expert opinion, but part of that expert opinion was second-hand descriptions of what various job titles involve on paper. The other part of that expert opinion was a bunch of ML specialists making guesses about jobs they, themselves, don't understand. Do you realize that in real life, to actually really automate any job you would have to do so much deep ethnography it's not even funny? Nobody would buy a robot you designed based on taking a quick look at a bunch of US government figures, however trustworthy a source that was. so it might be somewhat better than a wild guess, but I doubt that for reasons I hope I've made apparent here.

In any case, I seriously doubt that the two nerds who wrote this paper meant for a secretary in the US to read it and decide she has outlived her usefulness and start making plans to have herself pushed out to sea on an ice floe. Honestly, I'd like to find those guys and punch them out for making you feel this way, even though it wasn't their intention.

As for that Tech Insider alarmist piece, I'm not even going to dignify it with a response. We have all been reading sensationalist shit like that all our lives. It doesn't mean we should give it any credence.

Disclosure: I have expertise of sorts in "coding", forecasting, secretarial work, event planning, acting, "big data" [eyeroll], and design. I know a bit about ethnography, second-hand. Take my word for it that my credentials are good enough to have written this paper myself. And my tl;dr is: keep scanning the job market, keep your skills current, plan ahead, and have a little faith in your own problem solving skills. Also, depression and anxiety have definitely clouded your ability to understand this paper and how seriously to take it. Get your depression and anxiety treated because they are making a big dent in your reading comprehension and problem-solving skills, and also causing you to waste your considerable intelligence on sustaining your illnesses instead of your actual life.
posted by tel3path at 10:55 AM on April 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

What industry are you working in, and do you have business knowledge related to that industry. I rather think that whatever tasks you do, there will be more people doing them in a big and growing industry than in a small and shrinking industry.

I work in an insurance & health care related business, and I can say that as long as people send piles of mail, there will be cubes of workers sorting it and entering data into computers. As long as people go to doctors, there will be workers making appointments, calling insurance companies, and arranging for tests and procedures.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:02 AM on April 26, 2016


Something with a weird admin automation issue actually just happened as I've been reading this thread/writing my answer above.

My company uses Google Calendar for all our scheduling. The three execs I support sync GCal to iCal to see their schedules on their phones. For some reason there's a default setting in GCal that auto-adds events from our corporate email accounts. Which seems like a feature the developers of Viv et al would love! But the problem is that we have old emails referencing meetings that are no longer relevant, and the software won't stop referencing those emails. So my bosses are getting popup notifications for meetings that don't exist. This freaks them out and makes them sad bosses who think it's all somehow my fault.

I just spent five minutes figuring out the source of this problem, solving it as best I could on my end, and sending them all an email explaining the steps to take to fix it on their end.

There is currently no software that can do this, the "automation software that will make admin careers obsolete!" created the problem in the first place, and it seems pretty ridiculous to think that we're a bug fix or two from not needing any human oversight over issues like this.
posted by Sara C. at 11:13 AM on April 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

You work extensively with academics, as do I. They are often very smart, and very good at certain things. But are they good at having any idea what people outside of academia actually do? No. The majority are laughably, hilariously bad at knowing what actually working in other industries are like. When I first floated the idea of leaving academia to look for jobs in other industries, my mentors wished me well, but explicitly told me that they had no guidance or help to give, because they had zero ideas about what other jobs were like or how to get them.

People who are academic experts in automation have about as much knowledge about your day to day working life as they do about the nitty gritty of being the Tooth Fairy. I no longer work in academia, but I still work WITH a lot of academics, and my colleagues and I regularly marvel at how incapable (or unwilling?) they are of understanding any of our jobs. Which is fine, as long as they are just doing their own-- but it also means you need to take not just a grain of salt, but an entire salt lick, whenever they start hypothesizing about "the job market". Yes, even for people at Oxford. Maybe especially them!

Also, Sara C. is right about everything she has said, but ESPECIALLY about how petulant and cranky people in charge become whenever something automated breaks-- or, worse, functions correctly in a way they do not understand. I cannot describe the many snits I have witnessed/encountered when an automated system does exactly what it is programmed to do. One of our systems has automated features that we have actually had to TURN OFF, just because the functionality of those features hurt the fragile feelings of certain important people.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:22 AM on April 26, 2016

Oh, and one other thing— almost everyone I know who works with some form of automation has noticed that the only thing automation has done has increased the volume and type of work. When it took one person 4 hours to type out 300 mailing labels, then you had an incentive to trim down your mailing list, or understand that you could only send out X mailings within a certain time, or you would have to hire more staff.

Being able to auto generate and print out 300 mailing labels in 5 minutes might mean that you can now send that same mailing to 3000 people instead, without having to hire nine more people. At first glance, that seems like nine potential jobs have been rendered obsolete by automation. But if 15% of the letters will bounce back and need updated addresses, someone has to work on that. If the letters are asking for responses that then come pouring in and need to be processed/entered into a system, you need staff to respond to 10x more responses. If people call in to ask about the content of the letters, you need staff to answer those calls, and staff on hand who knows the answers to the questions coming in through those calls. Automation removes the time burden for certain types of work, and certain restraints that were linked to those types of work. But if automation allows those types of work to expand, then it still means human staff is required because of the attendant work that comes with the higher volume of output.

Being the person who helps build the automation (coding) is one type of job security. But being the person who helps control/navigate/interpret the automation is another one, and it is vital to almost every industry that I can imagine.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:33 AM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm not about to say "academics are dumb", but I am going to say that you should take this paper for what it is, not as a Private & Confidential letter addressed to you, telling you you're fired.

If you read the paper you can see it piling one assumption onto another and getting more questionable with each assumption. It describes a bunch of machine learning nerds pulling some guesstimates out of their collective asses, and doing so over the timespan of a workshop. They picked some good sources on which to base their guesstimates, but that's clearly all they are. They certainly are not based on deeply informed opinion about what your job really involves, nor on the HCI effort of building an automated system, nor even on what it would take to process the "big data" that will result in ...profit! Yes, that "big data" still has to be cleansed and preprocessed before the magic happens, then postprocessed to make it any use at all. Do you know how much work that is? It's a hell of a lot of work. But they're not thinking about anything concrete like that, they're just thinking about what would maybe be theoretically possible in strictly ML terms in a decade oh okay call it two. And to be fair to them, which I wasn't, particularly, in my earlier replies - they've been perfectly clear about how they worked this stuff out and how back-of-the-envelope it really is.

Their arguments aren't baseless, of course not, but they're not that strong either. If you're going to start basing your anxiety on research papers (which I actually recommend) it is absolutely essential that you comprehend what you're reading.
posted by tel3path at 11:57 AM on April 26, 2016

I know nothing about automation, job markets, being a secretary, living and working in the US, or having to support a family.

However I do know for a certain fact that when you start saying things like "I am listening to everyone's advice - I'm just pushing back a little here so that I don't lie awake tonight and think 'If only I had raised [X] point, everyone's advice would have been totally different, my life is going to be a disaster after all because I didn't ask the question right'" you are heading for a serious mental health crisis, if you aren't already in one. Robots leaving you destitute, as detailed above by those smart and kind people, is a very unlikely thing to happen. Having a mental breakdown because of untreated severe anxiety? That's the kind of thing that does fuck up lives and destroy families, in the here and now. Please take care of yourself and seek professional help. The robots are a red herring.
posted by mymbleth at 1:30 PM on April 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

Gotta agree with mymbleth here. It's as if you asked us, "Daleks are going to come into my bedroom and exterminate me in my sleep! I know it!!! Tell me, if I make sure the blankets are covering my ears, how long can I hold them off?" and we said "It's OK because your bedroom is upstairs and Daleks can't climb stairs!!! you have nothing to worry about!!!" And you came back and said "But what about drone Daleks? Drone Daleks that fly in your window and exterminate you!!!"

Daleks don't exist and robots are not going to take away everything you have and leave you destitute. You need to see a mental health professional. That's the only known cure for Daleks.
posted by tel3path at 2:16 PM on April 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Okay: one area where automation has arguably already taken hold is with customer service telephone lines. Any time you call any company, you get a prerecorded voice chirping at you, "Hi! Please tell me in a few words what you're looking for today! say something like 'my tv doesn't work' or 'i'm paying my bill'!" and then when you say something, the same voice chirps, "I think you said 'give me an agent,' but let's see if I can help you first. Press '1' for yes or '2' for no!"

And yet - there are still people manning the phone lines, eventually. And the existence of web sites like this one, telling you how to cut past the automation and get to the people, means that the average member of the public prefers working with people to working with robots.

So if an already-existing automated system has not eliminated either the need for, or the desire for, people manning the phones, what makes you think that the even-more-complicated task of clerical worker is in danger of being discontinued?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:25 PM on April 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hi! I work in the robotics industry so this is a topic near and dear to my heart. (I do work with physical robots though, not AI/automation software, but I think the relevance still stands)

Here's the thing about robots taking jobs - right now, and for the foreseeable future in most industries*, no boss is going to come in today and say "Hey, you're fired! We bought this robot/software package/whatever instead." It's far more likely that they will simply decline to hire replacements after personnel quit/retire than it is that there will be a one for one replacement. A company I used to work for has a guy whose whole job is to make engineering drawing trees. He can be replaced with a software plugin that costs about $20,000. The company is just waiting for him to quit/retire to do that, rather than letting him go. Manufacturers aren't letting go their workers to replace them with robots - they're re-shoring a lot of work, but when they bring those jobs back from China, they're putting automation systems in place rather than hiring humans. Amazon isn't firing people to replace them with warehouse robots; they're simply declining to hire people seasonally, or building new warehouses to work with the robotic systems.

So that's all to say that the chances of firing *you* in order to replace you with software is really, really low. If you have a fairly secure job - stable company, good performance reviews, you can see yourself there for the next 5-10 years - you're pretty safe, I'd say. If for any reason you lose this job, it may be more difficult than it has been in the past to find a new one - but some jobs will still be there. Mass adoption of the technologies you're worried about won't happen in the next 10 years, would be my guess, particularly given that pink collar jobs tend to involve a fair bit of emotional labor (c.f. ordering flowers for someone, restaurant reservations, remembering birthdays) which, unsurprisingly, the latest awesome apps coming out of Silicon Valley tend not to manage for you, and the older, less-tech savvy generations will still really want humans doing that work when they have trouble understanding and working with that software.

Anecdotally, I am pretty darn tech-savvy, and things like Clara freaking infuriate me. I had to schedule some meetings with someone way outside my time zone who uses Clara, and it's the stupidest system that can't understand "any time after 2:00 in your time zone" and instead tries ONLY to do "right at 2:00!" and if that person is booked then, tries to boot the meeting weeks into the future. I spent a lot of time trying to punch my screen. Also, it's worth noting that a lot of these "automation" systems aren't even actually smart software right now - they're fairly dumb software with a bunch of people hired at very low wages in developing countries doing the more complex management of the interaction. In this sense, your job is more at risk of "off-shoring" than it is of replacement by automation. (Not that this really makes you feel better. I just want to point out the hype about where AI is right now is not really matched by the reality everyone likes to keep quiet.) The gig economy is everywhere, even when it's masked by PR about "deep learning and neural networks and AI!!!!!!!"

My advice to you would be different if you were a 22 year old. Then I would worry. But for where you are in your careers, I think you're going to be okay.

But what can you do to future-proof yourself? As some above have said, be proactive about these tools - learn about them. Start offering to work with them; familiarize yourself with how they operate, their limitations, and the issues you have working with them. You both can become the experts not just in working with these systems, but in managing their idiosyncrasies for your bosses, and knowing exactly what value you provide above and beyond their capabilities that you can pitch as a value-add when you're applying for a job.

If this is literally keeping you up at night, I really would advise some therapy for anxiety - it's a reality, but there are ways to work within and around this reality that require looking at the situation logically, keeping up with "threats" in your field, and folding them in to your portfolio of Things You Can Manage.

* Unless you're an Uber driver. One of the interesting side effects of that independent contractor arrangement is that when Uber finally has their self-driving car -- and they will -- they can just stop having contractors, which is a far less problematic process than laying off actual employees. Uber drivers I would actually worry about in the next 10 years.
posted by olinerd at 2:36 PM on April 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I do happen to work in automation software, and I work for one of the cutting-edge big players in the field, and I can promise you that you will not be replaced by this software within your lifetime. Not gonna happen.
posted by Ender's Friend at 6:28 PM on April 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

From an anon commenter:
Secure a permanent civilian position in the federal government. I know, it's easier said than done, but trust me, your admin skills will not be replaced by automation any time soon.

I recently joined an agency that's supposed to be at the forefront of technology, and you would *not* believe how slow things are.

A third of my site's employees are eligible for retirement, but still going strong. That means roughly 300 full-time employees who don't know how to combine pdf files in Adobe Pro, don't know how to use track changes in MS Word, are clueless when it comes to accepting Outlook invites and have to be verbally reminded when there's a meeting, require paper copies of every publication for their research, do not know how to save, close and then attach a document to an email, and last but not least, still use the fax machine to send intra-agency documents.

One of my supervising attorneys is 90 years old, and he avoids email as much as I avoid the fax machine. If he needs something, he comes over and asks me. If he has a question for a scientist, he will spend an hour walking over to the lab and back, multiple times during the day.

My other attorney just turned 60, and is likely to continue working for at least another decade.

And that's just my site. My agency has more than a dozen other sites around the country.

Heck, things are so slow, I've considered resigning more than once, because I get so frustrated with inefficiency. But since I just joined, I'm trying to make it to a year.

Yes, you run the risk of being subject to a reduction-in-force, budget cuts, etc. This may vary from one agency to the next, but a seasoned colleague of mine said that (at least in our agency) contractors would be first to go, then all of the excepted service (non permanent federal and temporary employees). If there are still cuts, some people close to retirement would be offered special packages to leave early. She said that it would be rare for permanent federal employees to be laid off in masses, because feds have certain protections. Even if permanent feds are laid off, the competent ones would be able to find placements at different departments and/or agencies (in most cases).

And of course, you will never be replaced by an H1-B resident or non-U.S. citizen.

TL;DR: secure a federal civilian position, and learn the insides and outs of your agency so that if there are cuts, you can transfer more easily to another site or other agency altogether. Don't worry about being replaced by a robot. If anything, you'll be begging for more automation, because that's how slow things are here.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:43 PM on April 26, 2016

Okay, everyone, I have successfully been talked down a bit. This thread has been very helpful, and I will probably follow up with some asks in coming weeks about some of the specific career recommendations that have been made here.

I'm a bit on the fence about the depression/anxiety thing because my work life and my housemate-co-mortgagee's work life have a couple of super-duper stressors right now that should resolve (either in layoffs or....not) in the next month or two. In the past few years, I've been able to manage the depression/anxiety pretty well with exercise, visualizations, etc - except with both of us having the Work Awfuls at the very same time. I might try to sit tight until all this resolves and then see how I'm doing, bearing in mind that any "the world is ending" thoughts are not real.

But I will definitely step up the self-care/eating carefully/exercise/funny novels stuff until things cool out at work, and I will definitely work hard to remember that when I'm catastrophizing, it's anxiety and not a super-rational level-headed evaluation of reality. If I'm still feeling rough in a couple of weeks, I'll re-evaluate, but for now I think I'm going to try to bump up the cardio, bump down the sugar and caffeine and pick up some light fantasy novels.

Anyway, thanks again - I really appreciate how substantial this thread has been and how much effort everyone put into detailed responses to my questions. While I know that I go off on anxiety tears sometimes and that's not about rationality, I also find that detailed, factual material about my fears really does calm me down. I'll be revisiting these answers if I start to freak out again.
posted by Frowner at 7:01 AM on April 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's why as a clerical worker I'm not worried:

(a) I used to work on a computer program that I was told was going to eventually automate me out of a job. It did not. The computer program keeled over, I got a transfer, and now my business is trying to bring back the idea of the computer program. Guess what? Version 2.0, new and spanky and has several more years of technology behind it? Still having issues that humans gotta fix.

(b) There are some things in my business I've been told from the getgo can never be fixed--and they STILL haven't been over a decade later. They keep telling us it's way too hard and they are straight up refusing to try because they have fifty billion other projects to worry about.

(c) For every one process they finally get automated here, they hand us another five, ten, or fifteen new tasks that we have to do. And even though I don't spend hours doing each automated task any more, they still need real humans to fix things when the automation goes wrong.

(d) Given how I've seen automation go in my industry, I find it highly unlikely that we're all going to have self-driving cars really soon. Hell, I'd be surprised if they get it working well enough to put all truck drivers out of work in twenty years. Automation isn't perfect. We're not that smart yet.

(e) If you do anything that serves or helps people, that's a lot harder to replace. Humans don't want to talk to robots or people in India for assistance, especially when upset. Customer service jobs are probably pretty safe.

If you're worried about your skills, you need to learn how to be a finance/payroll person, travel agent, and an event planner. Because nowadays they want all clerical workers to do all of that stuff, and I haven't been able to get hired because I've never done any of those in a job. (Though I'm at least finding a loophole to work on the event planner thing, I don't know how I'm going to get around the other requirements when I don't have access to financial systems without a justifiable reason.) So by all means work on your skills, but don't flip out that everyone's going to have robot secretaries.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:14 AM on April 27, 2016

Frowner, it's great that you're going to look into self-care a bit more, and I'd like to really underline that what I said about Daleks? wasn't at the *exact* level of unrealistic as your question, but it was honestly not too far off. Really, no kidding.

Your biggest enemy right now is fear, itself.

Take this from an anxious person who lives in a world of gloom and doom 24/7. If I'm telling you you have less to worry about than you think...
posted by tel3path at 7:35 AM on April 27, 2016

« Older Cycling in Bordeaux   |   How to dye my hair silver and look natural-ish? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.