It's a common refrain:  Gig economy companies from Uber to TaskRabbit to SpoonRocket are hiring cheap, on-demand workers--and it's only a matter of time before robots take over the entire marketplace.  

But ask that gig worker--or anyone with a job--if they feel secure in their position in the face of automation, and you might be surprised at their response. According to a report by Pew Research Center, 80 percent of Americans think their jobs probably or definitely will exist as they know it in 50 years, and 65 percent think a large portion of work will be done by computers.

The study is being released a day after a report on the impact of technology on skilled workers from local services marketplace startup Thumbtack. "The low-skilled gig economy job is unsustainable, whereas skilled professionals have the advantage of being difficult to outsource and resistant to automation," the Thumbtack survey stated.

But researchers who worked on both surveys underscored that a false sense of security transcends career fields and incomes. Past studies have projected automation of as much as half of all work humans do. 

Automation is "not something that really registers as a top of mind threat," says Aaron Smith, associate director of research at Pew. People think in the macro that things are bad, but in the micro have optimism -- this is something Pew also sees in other surveys. An example Smith provided was how people will say that education in the United States sucks, "but if they ask about their child's school, it's great."

Thumbtack's chief economist Jon Lieber says overestimation of skill may also be at play in the dissonance of responses to the Pew study. "Lots of technologists write about the accelerating rate of technological change," he says. "It seems overwhelmingly likely that the average, educated worker is overestimating his own training and underestimating how quickly advances in automation are moving."

For instance, people are often surprised that the review of legal documents is now an automated process. "As the legal example shows, it doesn't matter how cognitively intensive a task may be," he says. "If it is routine, it's highly susceptible to being automated."

Jobs that are relatively safe from automation incorporate creativity in some way, or at least require a certain adaptability. Thumbtack defined the kind of skilled work that won't evaporate from its place in the gig economy as "non-routine, cognitively-intensive."  That could be complex intellectual work or complicated manual labor, such as graphic design or plumbing.

And while skills matter for gig economy workers, Thumbtack's study argues that on-demand work can break down barriers, like a requirement for college degrees.

"Skilled professionals don't have employers, they have clients. They aren't applying for jobs they expect to have for the next 20 years, they are hunting down opportunities week to week," the survey reads.

As others who study automation have said, jobs themselves may not all necessarily disappear, but they will at least transform as certain tasks undergo automation

Creativity and empathy are hard-to-automate skills, says Smith. He also commented that in past periods, like the industrial revolution, jobs rendered obsolete by new technologies gave way to new careers in their place. He predicts, however, that things like welfare may require rethinking to make a post-automation world work.

People tend to expect others to work, especially in the United States. "How does that change when we don't need everybody to work?"

Published on: Mar 10, 2016