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Opinion: The robots are coming - and men should be more worried than women

The rise of automation is threatening widespread job destruction – especially for men.

Shawn Britton

THERE IS A growing anxiety about the rise of robots in today’s world – and new research has revealed that men should be more worried than women.

While the fear of automation is nothing new, its impact is becoming more and more evident in our economy. Given the relentless drive of companies to reduce costs, it seems inevitable that automation will become more prevalent throughout all industries over the next few decades.

Many multinational companies now run a good portion of their IT, call centres, back office operations and other ‘knowledge services’ in countries where wages are lower – and they are continuing to look for even cheaper alternatives.

But why should men in the Irish labour market be more fearful of the imminent robot takeover?

Human vs Robot

Two out of five Irish jobs are likely to be “substantially impacted” by automation, according to recent research published by the Irish Government Economics and Evaluation Service (IGEES). 

The research further revealed that the sectors most impacted will be those in transportation and storage, construction and agriculture. Those in education, health and social work are the least at risk of losing out in a robot takeover.

The research showed that the sectors most at risk of automation are largely male dominated. The construction sector is comprised of 94% male and 6% female workers, whereas the education sector is 74% female and 26% male.

According to the IGEES report, the construction sector could suffer around 111,000 job losses while education might see automation-related losses of about 23,000 jobs.

As a result, the automation-related job losses for people working in construction are about four times those seen for people working in education.

Considering the large discrepancy in gender ratios in these two sectors, this is concerning for men. 

Resistance is futile—but adaptation will be necessary

So what can we do to save our men from the looming robots?

One approach would be to encourage men to pursue jobs in historically female-dominated sectors. This may require a rethink of status, both social and financial.

The government would also need to introduce a public policy aimed at early intervention such as career guidance for young men. Short-term financial incentives might also encourage men to consider entering these female-dominated fields.

Ideally, this would be a movement similar to the encouragement women into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

An influx of men into jobs in the sectors of education, health and social work would also introduce new perspectives, similar to the contributions women have made by being more equally represented in science and business.

Traditionally, these labour market revolutions tend to entail brutal dislocations of workers.

As seen in the shift from a predominantly agricultural economy to a largely manufacturing economy, the move to a services sector economy will mean a change in the nature of the jobs we work.

If we want to soften the blows of these inevitable frictions, we need to have forward-looking policies.

You will be assimilated … into job security

Regardless of whether or not policy is put into place to encourage this, the transition of men to these sectors will likely be impacted by current demographic trends.

Ireland has both the highest birth rate and the lowest death rate in the EU, according to Eurostat, so there will be an increasing demand for nurses, teachers, and home caregivers over the coming decades. 

In the medium-term, male-dominated sectors remain the most vulnerable to the economic cycle.

For nearly all of the last 12 years, the male unemployment rate has been higher than the female unemployment rate.

From the peak in employment in 2007 to its trough in 2012, about 153,000 construction jobs were lost.

Over the same time period, jobs in the education sector remained relatively unchanged, actually increasing by about 300 jobs.

If men wish to ensure some stability in their employment, their best bet may be in “pink-collar” work. 

Shawn Britton is an Economist at KBC Bank who is researching the potential socio-economic issues of automation on employment in Ireland.

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Shawn Britton

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