Occupation Insecurity: How Do Employees from Different Countries Perceive the Future of Their Occupations in Light of Automation?

BY LARA C. ROLL. With the arrival of ChatGPT we once again have to face the facts: our jobs, our occupations will not be the same tomorrow. Automation is a reality, and it has many benefits. But the idea can also cause a lot of uncertainty.

Written by Dr. Lara C. Roll, since September 2020 Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow in the unit of Work, Organization, and Personnel Psychology under Prof. Hans De Witte. The research she writes about was funded by the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program of the European Union under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement number 896341.
Dr. Lara C. Roll

The arrival of ChatGPT has brought attention to the vast potential of automation. While automation can bring many benefits, such as increased efficiency and removal of repetitive tasks, it also has the potential to disrupt and change entire occupations. ChatGPT currently evokes curiosity and wonder, but everyone realizes that sooner or later this technology will have an impact on our (professional) lives. In a widely publicized study, Frey and Osborne estimated that up to 47% of current jobs in the United States are at risk of being automated within the next one to two decades, a trend which has undoubtedly been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Global or content occupation insecurity

In the research group Work, Organisational and Personnel Psychology at KU Leuven, we have developed a scale to measure to what extent employees are afraid that their whole occupation might disappear or significantly change due to automation. Here it is important to distinguish a ‘job’ from an ‘occupation’: a ‘job’ is a specific role within a certain organization, an ‘occupation’ is the profession an individual has been trained in. For example, being a server at a specific restaurant is a job. If the server were laid off, they could still work in a different restaurant. However, if servers were increasingly replaced by self-ordering machines, the individual may need to retrain and learn a different occupation. Seeing more and more automation happening in one’s occupation can increase the perception of occupation insecurity.

We can distinguish between two kinds of occupation insecurity: global and content occupation insecurity. Someone experiences global occupation insecurity, when the person is afraid that the occupation as a whole is threatened to disappear due to automation. For example, the widespread use of automated checkouts at supermarkets has made it possible for retailers to replace human cashiers with machines. Another example is the rise of self-driving cars, which has the potential to disrupt the transportation industry and put professional drivers out of work.

In contrast, content occupation insecurity refers to the fear that even if an occupation does not disappear completely, the tasks and responsibilities within that occupation may change significantly due to automation. For example, the increasing use of robots in manufacturing has led to changes in the tasks performed by humans. Instead of performing repetitive tasks on the assembly line, workers may be required to perform tasks that require more specialized skills, such as programming and maintaining the robots. While these changes may lead to more rewarding and less boring jobs, workers may be afraid that they do not have the right skills to deal with those changes.

Measuring occupation insecurity

The occupation insecurity scale (OCIS) that we have created measures both global and content occupation insecurity. It can be downloaded in different languages from this website: www.occupationinsecurity.com.

We have used OCIS to gather data in Flanders, Germany, the UK, USA and China (5080 participants in total). Data were representative in terms of age, gender and (with the exception of China) region. Results show that employees in Flanders and Germany score lowest on both global and occupation insecurity. Employees in the UK and USA score higher for global but not for content occupation insecurity, i.e. workers in the UK and USA are more worried about their whole occupation disappearing than employees in Flanders and Germany. The highest rating was indicated by employees in China: They were most afraid that their occupations might disappear (global occupation insecurity) or significantly change (content occupation insecurity) compared to the other countries.

Overall, results showed that 16.8% of employees experienced global occupation insecurity, while a staggering 51.3% experienced content occupation insecurity. About 11.2% believed that their occupations would disappear in 1-2 years versus 16.4% who indicated that their occupations are likely to disappear within 5-10 years. A total of 41.3% of participants expected that their occupations would undergo significant changes due to technological developments, and 42.8% felt that they needed additional training in technology to be able to continue working in their current occupation.

Males were significantly more concerned in terms of both global and content occupation insecurity than females. The reason for this result could be that a lot of traditionally female-dominated jobs, like education and healthcare, have a lower risk of being automated. Further, people with a higher level of education are more afraid. One explanation could be that they have gathered more knowledge about the potential of automation or that they are more often working with automated processes. Lastly, in contrast to what one might expect, the younger and middle-aged generations (18-49 years old) are more afraid than their older counterparts  (50-65 years old). Older generations could believe that they would be “saved by retirement” before having to deal with the changes brought about by automation.

Consequences and solutions

Across the five countries, both global and content occupation insecurity were associated with higher levels of burnout and reduced job satisfaction, work engagement, physical and mental health, and self-rated job performance. It is therefore important for policy makers, employers, and workers to come together to address this issue and find ways to mitigate the negative impact. Steps the government can take are to promote educational programs in fields that are less likely to be automated and job placement services to help workers transition to new careers. Organizations can also play an important role by investing in their employees and providing opportunities for training and skill development. For individuals it is crucial to maintain a growth mindset and make it a priority to continuously update their skills.