www.bbc.com /worklife/article/20230418-ai-anxiety-artificial-intelligence-replace-jobs

AI anxiety: The workers who fear losing their jobs to artificial intelligence

Josie Cox 7-9 minutes 4/18/2023

Many workers worry AI is coming for their jobs. Can we get past the fear and find a silver lining?

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Claire has worked as a PR at a major consulting firm, based in London, for six years. The 34-year-old enjoys her job and earns a comfortable salary, but in the past six months, she’s started to feel apprehensive about the future of her career. The reason: artificial intelligence.

“I don’t think the quality of the work that I’m producing could be matched by a machine just yet,” says Claire, whose last name is being withheld to protect her job security. “But at the same time, I’m amazed at how quickly ChatGPT has become so sophisticated. Give it a few more years, and I can absolutely imagine a world in which a bot does my job just as well as I can. I hate to think what that might mean for my employability.”

In recent years, as headlines about robots stealing human jobs have proliferated – and as generative AI tools like ChatGPT have quickly become more accessible – some workers report starting to feel anxious about their futures and whether the skills they have will be relevant to the labour market in years to come. 

In March, Goldman Sachs published a report showing that AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs. Last year, PwC’s annual global workforce survey showed that almost a third of respondents said they were worried about the prospect of their role being replaced by technology in three years.

“I think a lot of creatives are concerned,” says Alys Marshall, a 29-year-old copywriter based in Bristol, UK. “We’re all just hoping that our clients will recognise [our] value, and choose the authenticity of [a human] over the price and convenience of AI tools.”

Now, career coaches and HR experts are saying that although some anxiety might be justified, employees need to focus on what they can control. Instead of panicking about possibly losing their jobs to machines, they should invest in learning how to work alongside technology. If they treat it as a resource and not a threat, add the experts, they’ll make themselves more valuable to potential employers – and feel less anxious. 

As headlines about robots stealing human jobs proliferate some workers report feeling anxious about their futures (Credit: Getty Images)

As headlines about robots stealing human jobs proliferate some workers report feeling anxious about their futures (Credit: Getty Images)

Fear of the unknown 

For some people, generative AI tools feel as if they’ve come on fast and furious. OpenAI’s ChatGPT broke out seemingly overnight, and the “AI arms race” is ramping up more every day, creating continuing uncertainty for workers.

Carolyn Montrose, a career coach and lecturer at Columbia University in New York, acknowledges the pace of technological innovation and change can be scary. “It is normal to feel anxiety about the impact of AI because its evolution is fluid, and there are many unknown application factors,” she says.

But as unnerving as the new technology is, she also says workers don’t necessarily have to feel existential dread. People have the power to make their own decisions about how much they worry: they can either “choose to feel anxious about AI, or empowered to learn about it and use it to their advantage”.

PwC’s Scott Likens, who specialises in understanding issues around trust and technology, echoes this. “Technology advancements have shown us that, yes, technology has the potential to automate or streamline work processes. However, with the right set of skills, individuals are often able to progress alongside these advancements,” he says. “In order to feel less anxious about the rapid adoption of AI, employees must lean into the technology. Education and training [are] key for employees to learn about AI and what it can do for their particular role as well as help them develop new skills. Instead of shying away from AI, employees should plan to embrace and educate.”

It may also be helpful to remember that, according to Likens, “this isn’t the first time we have encountered industry disruptions – from automation and manufacturing to e-commerce and retail – we have found ways to adapt”. Indeed, the introduction of new technology has often been unnerving for some people, but Montrose explains that plenty good has come from past new developments: she says technological change has always been a key ingredient for society’s advancement.

Regardless of how people respond to AI technology, adds Montrose, it’s here to stay. And it can be a lot more helpful to remain positive and look forward. “If people feel anxious instead of acting to improve their skills, that will hurt them more than the AI itself,” she says. 

Unique value of humans

Although experts say some level of anxiety is justified, it may not be time to hit the panic button yet. Some research has recently shown fears of robots taking over human jobs might be overblown. 

November 2022 research by sociology professor Eric Dahlin at Brigham Young University in Utah, US, showed that not only are robots not replacing human workers at the rate most people believe, but some people also misperceive the rate at which automation tools are taking over. His data showed about 14% of workers said they had seen their job replaced by a robot. But both workers who had experienced job displacement due to technology as well as those who hadn’t tended to overstate the pace and volume of the trend – their estimates were far off reality.

“Overall, our perceptions of robots taking over is greatly exaggerated. Those who hadn’t lost jobs overestimated by about double, and those who had lost jobs overestimated by about three times,” said Dahlin in presenting his research. While Dahlin said that some new technologies would likely be adopted and implemented without considering all implications, it’s also true that “just because a technology can be used for something does not mean that it will be implemented”.

Stefanie Coleman, a principal in consultancy EY's people advisory services business, also points out that we shouldn’t expect the workforce of the future to be “binary”. In other words, a combination of both humans and robots will always need to exist.

"Humans will always have a role to play in business by performing the important work that robots cannot. This kind of work typically requires innate human qualities, such as relationship building, creativity and emotional intelligence,” she says. "Recognising the unique value of humans in the workforce, when compared to machines, is an important step in navigating the fears that surround this topic."

A few weeks ago, Claire, the PR worker, decided she wanted to start learning more about the technology that’s transforming her industry. She’s now researching online courses through which she hopes to learn to code. “A lot of tech used to scare me, so I just ignored it, but based on everything I’m seeing, that’s sort of stupid,” she says. “Ignoring something definitely won’t make it go away, and I’m slowly starting to understand that if I take the time to make it less unfamiliar – which makes it less scary – it might actually be able to help me a lot.”