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Robots are taking over our jobs. The future workforce is unskilled, unprepared and unemployable. Sounds familiar? Policy agendas and media stories are fixated on digital skills – or lack thereof. Are people aware of their impending joblessness? Do they care?

Sociologist Prof. Renata Włoch cuts through some of the hype by revealing new research about the changing labour market in Poland. 

Are we heading for digital Armageddon?

Most of the pundits agree that in a very foreseeable future the structure of labour market will change and it will entail the change in the social and economic order as well. Those of us who work in academia are already slightly fed up with the new hype about “digital tsunami”, “digital transformation” or even “digital Armageddon” on the labour market.

We have read, reconsidered and criticised even grimmer visions of a jobless world or the measly predictions of automatisation of jobs; listened to (or even given) public talks that consisted of much telling but often very little story about future of jobs; went through heated discussions that the general approach may be a little skewed and that we should rather talk about automatisation of specific activities, and not of jobs as such; and tried to anchor all those revelations in our knowledge of social and economic theory.

We even sneaked to the BBC page and checked the probability that our job will be taken by robots (only 10% for a “social scientist” and 3% for “higher education teaching professional”, yep, yep).

The question is how much of this prevalent academic knowledge trickles down from our ivory towers to operational awareness of the so-called common folk. Do they know that something is going to happen to their jobs? The Pew research of 2016 checked what Americans have to say about the future of their jobs: admittedly, most of them seem to ignore the looming change. In DELab we decided to allow ourselves to be inspired by Pew and we probed the representative sample of Poles about similar issues.

The situation in Poland

Drawing the context in broad strokes, Poland’s considerable economic success as a post-communist country (still in the throes of transformation) is mainly based on the accessibility of cheap labour, both physical and cognitive, and in both cases engaged in mainly routine tasks. Hence, for example, the steady growth of the outsourced accountancy and shared services centres in Cracow, Lodz and Wroclaw; in 2020 they will hire 250,000 people.

The OECD estimations show that at the moment Poland’s risk of jobs automation remains safely low: only 7% of workers are highly endangered by automatisation. Yet for a country of 38 million, circa 6 million work in the sectors most susceptible to automatisation and digitalisation: 1.1 million in offices and bureaus; 2.2 million in sales and commerce; 2.3 million in industry and production. The upstep in machine learning is bound to destroy a fair portion of those jobs.

Heads in the sand

Nonetheless, Poles remain blissfully unaware of oncoming changes. Even though 64% of working Poles would agree with a prediction that in 30 years machines/robots will perform most of the work/job activities (with the unemployed and low-skilled most worried), only 40% are concerned that it will be their job the robots will take over.

Nearly half of the working Poles (48%) are certain that in ten years they will be working in the same job and that their tasks will not change much. One in five (22%) takes into account the necessity of learning new technologies while working the same job; one in ten (8%) doesn’t shrink from changing his/her occupation and switching into new professions related to new technologies altogether. Furthermore, only 6% is ready to part with the idea of one fixed occupation and contemplate working on flexible basis with new technologies.

Digitally un-skilled

So, Poles have little premonition about the dangers of automatisation and digitalisation. And it’s not like they are well prepared for the changes on the labour market, either. According to the European Commission’s DESI only 40% of the Poles can demonstrate very basic digital skills, which places Poland at Europe’s tail. In other words, Poland may have it hard way when automatisation strikes with all its might.

The hope, as usual, lies in the flexibility and ingenuity of youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in our study the students were much better reconciled with the future without fixed occupation than the majority of working force (36% as compared to 6%), and much more willing to work with new technologies. Therefore, the key to the future economic success is in wisely calibrated education, and this is something we should know how to cope within academia.

Prof. Renata Włoch is a sociologist working side-by-side and enthusiastically arguing with economists in Digital Economy Lab of University of Warsaw. On the 29 September 2017, University of Warsaw will host the 3rd International DELab UW Conference.