The current labor market is, in a word, weird. Announcements of mass layoffs seem to come daily, especially from tech companies. Demand for US tech jobs isn’t abating, though. Oh, and then there’s the elephant in the room: All of this is happening against a backdrop of AI that began last November with the launch of ChatGPT.
Here’s my attempt to read the tea leaves, make a few predictions, and offer advice based on The Nine: The Tectonic Forces Reshaping the Workplace. I’ll answer four related sub-questions that ought to be on the top of every employee’s mind.
Here’s the doomsday scenario: ChatGPT, Google Bard, Midjourney, and their ilk quickly eliminate hundreds of millions of jobs. Goldman Sachs economists recently predicted that AI could automate 18% of work. For example, the job of a copywriter may go the way of the travel agent. If these developments play out, rank-and-file employees will be so happy to collect paychecks that they’ll begrudgingly return to the office as if the pandemic never happened. They’ll eschew unions, bucking the recent upward trend.
In reality, such a scenario—at least in the short term—is unlikely for many reasons. The introduction of powerful new technologies does not necessarily result in an increase in productivity. Smartphones and the internet were supposed to make all of us more productive. In some cases, however, the opposite took place.
The history of technology teaches us that diffusion of any new tchotchke takes time and occurs unevenly. It’s silly to ignore these tools because, for all of their faults, they can help us automate or eliminate mundane busy work. Take time every week to play around with generative AI, as these tools will only improve.
In a word, no. In five years, though, I may well feel different. As for now, compared to 2019, many employees are living their best lives. Wages have continued to increase. US employers added an eye-popping 187,000 jobs in July—crushing expectations. Many CEOs have spent months preparing for a recession that hasn’t arrived yet—and may well not.
Employees are holding great cards. As such, they are loath to forgo hard-earned flexibility. Remote and hybrid work persist despite many employers’ return-to-office-mandates and the rise of bossism. As a group, we are commuting less. This means that we can enjoy more time with our loved ones. We are spending less money on childcare, tolls, and gas. Is it any wonder that job satisfaction is rising?
Can someone say collision?
The battle between employees and employers is violent and inevitable. Both sides are digging in. As for who’s winning, a decent proxy is office-occupancy rates. Flights and sporting events are packed, but roughly half of all office space lies empty.
Now, let’s return to AI. Sure, ChatGPT can do amazing things, but its downsides are considerable. Consider the New York lawyer who used ChatGPT to cite fake cases in a legal brief. In the words of the judge, they “appear[ed] to be bogus judicial decisions with bogus quotes and bogus internal citations.” Those who believe that ChatGPT will displace lawyers tomorrow are sorely mistaken. You can say the same for many professions—at least now.
If you’re considering a career switch or change of location, I wouldn’t let the presence of ChatGPT stop you. If your current management is enamored with generative AI and, as a result, your job security seems perilous, I’d rip off the Band-Aid right now and move on or make plans to do so soon.
They’ll certainly try, but their success won’t be evenly distributed. Some employees will feel the pain of generative AI more than others.
Many smart cookies believe ChatGPT will harm knowledge workers far more than their blue-collar counterparts. Eventually, managers will demand more from their employees, especially as generative AI begins to pop up in Microsoft Word, Excel, and other productivity stalwarts. (Yes, you’ll be able to ask PowerPoint to create an original five-slide presentation; a few minutes later, you’ll see it appear.)
All things being equal, a decrease in the demand for workers lowers the price of labor. That’s just Labor Economics 101.
Rather than trying to drive wages down, I envision a different, AI-driven scenario: Companies will pay a premium for folks who have mastered these newfangled AI toys—they won’t need to be full-time, permanent employees. And they may not be your typical tools. For example, coders who used GitHub Copilot completed their tasks 55% faster than developers who didn’t use it. Who wouldn’t pay a premium salary for such a programmer?
In this scenario, coders who have mastered AI tools will earn more than those who have not. Will managers use generative AI and automation to combat employee wage hikes? It depends.
My advice here is the same: Play with these tools. It’s better to know what they do well—and not so well—than to ignore them. Trust me: They’re not going anywhere, and they’re going to improve quickly.
We have to do more with less.
It’s perhaps the oldest management refrain in history—and it’s alive and well today.
The tightness of the labor market, immigration challenges, inflationary concerns, and the US’s declining birthrate mean that managers will try to do more with less. Mark Zuckerberg has coined 2023 Meta’s Year of Efficiency. He’s hardly alone. Google CEO Sundar Picha has essentially told his workforce the same thing.
Automation and generative AI are rapidly advancing—and many jobs will change or disappear altogether. Advances in robotics make for splashy headlines, but rare is the enterprise that can replace all of its employees with robots. Businesses still need human beings to perform key tasks. That won’t change in our lifetime.
The rise of generative AI changes the equation, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril. Much like a medical condition, it’s far better to know than be in the dark.
Phil Simon is a leading independent expert on workplace collaboration and technology. He is a frequent keynote speaker and the award-winning author of 14 books, most recently The Nine: The Tectonic Forces Reshaping the Workplace.