Pilar Pulgar, a 51-year-old supermarket cashier, "her legs shake" when she sees a customer at an automatic checkout.
Estefanía García (28 years old) perceives "fear" for the automation of the logistics warehouse in which she works, after several years employed in another that was barely robotic.
José Luis, a 42-year-old commercial agent for a telephone company, assures that his company frightens him about a future in which machines replace him: "They transmit it to us clearly, that we feel that we are expendable."
Other workers, also threatened by the automation of the activity they carry out every day, are more optimistic.
"It's hard for me to imagine how what I do can be automated," says Beatriz Espinilla (39), who is in charge of trimming car doors on an assembly line.
“It requires fine work,” she details.
"There is concern, but not concern," adds Diego Martín, a 36-year-old train driver.
Automation concerns millions of workers around the world.
The great technological development experienced in recent years and that is glimpsed in the future has set off many alarms, anticipating a possible cataclysm in the employment figures that, however, has not happened nor do the experts consulted by this newspaper believe that it will materialize. .
History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme, also in the labor market: as in previous technological leaps, a massive destruction of tasks that make up current professions is expected —and that will require a boost in the training of workers whose functions become obsolete — but not jobs.
Historically, the new trades have compensated for the destruction of the old ones.
“This debate already took place during the first and the second industrial revolution;
In the different periods of great technological changes, it has been verified that these have been positive both at the level of global wealth and the net effect on work.
It is to be hoped that this time it will not be so different”, says Miguel Sánchez, an economist in the Research Department of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and co-author of the report Social and Employment Outlook
in the World: Trends 2023
“The eschatology of the end of work sells, but it lacks foundation, since neither statistics nor history support such a conclusion.
The evolution of society continues to show how, after each technological revolution, the increase in productivity is accompanied (in the medium and long term) by the creation of more and better jobs”, says Juan José Fernández, professor in the Department of Law Private and Business from the University of León.
“We have been having this debate for a decade now and, despite the leap in digitization brought about by the pandemic, the destruction of jobs due to automation has not happened,” insists Arturo Lahera, an expert on the subject and professor in the Department of Applied Sociology at the University Complutense of Madrid.
Estefanía García, 28, works in a logistics plant. Nacho Izquierdo
It is an analysis similar to that of Federica Saliola, leader of the Social Security and Labor area of the World Bank: "In Germany, Singapore and South Korea, where the density of use of robots is high, you see that in general employment continues to be at high rates.
Automation always goes hand in hand with innovation, and innovation creates new jobs.”
“Many jobs are going to change, but we are not heading towards a drop in the number of workers,” insists Stefano Scarpetta, director of the OECD's Employment and Social Affairs area.
In its 2019 report on the matter, this body anticipated that in 10 years, 14% of current trades will be fully automated and around 32% partially.
And that this process will not imply a drop in the number of workers in the world,
Another report on the future of work, published by the World Economic Forum in 2020, points out the professions in which the demand for labor is falling the most: data recorders, administrative, accountants or assembly line workers.
They are professions with nuances similar to those that have fallen the most between 2007 and 2018 in the United States, according to the same report: computer operators, administrative or typists.
Thus, according to these estimates, between 2020 and 2025, 85 million obsolete jobs will be destroyed in the world and 97 million will be created by new trades.
Regarding tasks, the World Economic Forum estimates that in 2020 around a third were performed by machines and that in 2025 it will be around half.
This growth "is due in large part to the increase in digital connectivity and the adoption of technology, which is driving jobs such as data analysts, scientists, specialists in artificial intelligence or digital marketing," explains Sam Grayling, a researcher at the Economic Forum. World.
"The total number is maintained, and even increases, showing that there are numerous deposits of new occupations capable of replacing those that disappear," adds Fernández.
Raquel Sebastián, a senior researcher in the Department of Economic Analysis at the Complutense University of Madrid and a specialist in this subject, indicates that in Spain, between 1998 and 2019, automation has caused a polarization of jobs: "Occupations in the lower part and the upper part of the wage distribution, while occupations in the middle decrease.
The diffusion of technology, driven by the fall in prices in the sector, has given rise to a process of routinization: the most routine jobs, and those that are at the center of the salary distribution, have been replaced by machines”.
This, Sebastián warns, leads to a worsening of the already high rates of inequality in Spain: “Robots will not only displace the middle class of the distribution, but they will also provoke,
by increasing wage dispersion, a significant growth in economic inequality”.
Saliola warns that this is a phenomenon that occurs globally.
Resistance to technology entry
No matter how groundbreaking a technology is, it ends up facing resistance that moderates its impact.
Pulgar believes that most of his clients avoid self-service checkouts: “Most people don't want to go through there.
I think that many are lazy to pass the barcode, others are older and don't know how to do it, and others refuse because they know that it involves a problem for the workers.
In the long term, when people get used to it, as has happened at the gas stations where you refuel yourself, we may disappear."
José Luis, the commercial agent of a telephone company, believes that his company is moving towards a “worrying systematization”: “We talk less and less between workers or with those in charge, everything is very impersonal.
And while technology does more things as the years go by, we feel more pressure, with fewer breaks.”
The social rejection of automation is another key factor in transport, according to Martín.
"In Japan they already have the technology to fully automate their rail network, but the refusal of the population is one of the elements that is mitigating it," adds this train driver, a specialist in the automation process in his sector.
“Airplanes practically fly themselves, but it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to get on one that doesn't have a pilot,” he adds.
Lahera believes that the media are highly responsible for the catastrophic omens regarding the impact of new technologies on employment.
"Whenever a new technology appears, there is an impact on the consequences it will have on the labor market, but the same loudspeaker is not given when those forecasts are not met."
He gives several examples: “For example, Amazon has just announced the closure of several supermarkets with an automatic checkout service, which charges you directly when leaving.
Logistics delivery drones are running into more and more problems and autonomous driving was supposed to be very widespread by the end of the last decade, but I haven't seen any truck without a trucker on the road yet.
But the case that seems most interesting to me is that of the metaverse: divestments are beginning to take place,
The new technology monopolizing the public conversation is artificial intelligence.
Scarpetta, from the OECD, emphasizes that it will have a notable effect on the transformation of the labor market, but does not anticipate the destruction of jobs: "Unlike other technological developments, it will greatly affect jobs with higher qualifications, but I believe that those with less training will experience the greatest impact in the long term”.
The expert from the Complutense University points out that this technology requires a wide deployment of labor: "It requires a high level of workers to provide the information and data with which artificial intelligence interprets reality."
Another basic barrier is that the generalization of some of these technologies is more expensive than labor costs.
"Day by day,
change in skills
The fact that automation does not empty the labor market of cash does not mean that curves are not coming for workers, especially for those who perform repetitive tasks, such as moving boxes.
"There is a big difference between what we do in this warehouse compared to the other one where I worked," says García, the worker in a highly automated logistics warehouse.
“Before, we assembled the box, we put the seal on it, we checked if everything was OK, we closed it... Now all this is done alone.
We also moved boxes from person to person and not anymore.”
Thanks to these developments, she believes that in her company there are fewer people dedicated to these tasks, "but there are more workers waiting for the machines, that everything works correctly."
The great challenge is that the former, whose tasks are less and less necessary,
adopt the knowledge of the second.
"Since he catches me young, I see that I still have room to adapt to another sector or other capacities in which I am now, but if I were older I think that all this would overwhelm me a little more," says García at 28 years of age.
Pulgar, at 51, is indeed more stressed: “If they automate all the payments in the supermarket, the task that remains is that of replenishment, where companies are more likely to hire men because they have more strength.
Let's hope it doesn't happen."
the task that remains is that of replenishment, where companies are more likely to hire men because they have more strength.
Let's hope it doesn't happen."
the task that remains is that of replenishment, where companies are more likely to hire men because they have more strength.
Let's hope it doesn't happen."
Pilar Pulgar, 51, a supermarket cashier.
Sebastián believes that the re-education of these workers is "fundamental" to "counteract the disruptive effects of automation on the Spanish labor market."
“The highly differentiated effects that automation is having depending on the educational level makes it necessary to create specific education and training programs so that those with less education can acquire the new skills that the labor market demands.
In the near future it will be essential that those who currently perform routine and manual tasks are able to develop abstract tasks ”, he adds.
This training, the experts say, should not focus only on adolescents and young people, since there are millions of adults or people close to retirement whose knowledge will become obsolete.
“Technology is unpredictable, but what is certain is that workers are going to have to be more adaptable in the future.
We have to accept the idea of spending a lifetime learning, since workers are going to have multiple careers, not just different jobs.
You also have to connect the needs of companies with training”, adds Saliola, who sees these actions and a “significant” investment from governments necessary to achieve this objective.
At the same time, he defends the importance of supporting workers in this transition,
especially those who need new skills to find their place in the new technological ecosystem.
“Governments must support people in job transitions, including investing in education, encouraging retraining and upskilling, and providing adequate social safety nets,” insists Grayling.
Lahera is committed to overcoming the stereotype that people aged 45 or 50 cannot adapt to new work scenarios.
“You have to design a process that doesn't erase their knowledge, but builds on what they know how to do.
The problem is not them not being able to adapt, but the companies not finding those formulas.
This has to be changed."
He believes that this is especially difficult in Spain due to its productive fabric, made up mainly of small and medium-sized companies "with fewer training processes than the large ones".
All in all, the Complutense expert warns of an intrinsic risk in these ideas: “One trap is that if we never become obsolete, we can continue working and there are fewer and fewer jobs with a physical cost, we open the window to lengthen working life and raise the retirement age.
Espinilla, the 39-year-old worker at a car factory, declares that she is “delighted” to continue learning if necessary.
“I think that my colleagues and I are showing that we are willing to train and develop in the direction that the company needs.
What I do ask is that they include us in the change, that we form part of that future.
We have always given our best and we will continue to do so.
Let them count on us, ”she ends.
Technology improves, productivity and wages do not
Despite recent technological developments, the productivity of the global economy has been stagnant for years.
“The expected increases in labor productivity based on investment in new technologies, which would have given rise to higher incomes and therefore greater enjoyment of leisure hours, have not materialized.
And this is because there simply hasn't been that improvement in productivity.
In fact, for a decade we have been in one of the periods of lowest labor productivity growth in history”, indicates the ILO expert.
“Some believe”, Sánchez continues, “that current technologies are simply not so disruptive as to radically transform the growth model.
A debate parallel to that of productivity is why these technological improvements have not had an impact on an improvement in the conditions of the working class.
“Today, we observe a polarization of income both at the business level —with a few companies dominating entire sectors— and at the household level —substantial increase in inequality in most countries—”.
"This suggests," he adds, "that only a limited set of agents benefit from the new technologies."
Lahera complements this analysis: “I think there is a concentration of productivity gains from these technologies in some sectors, that the improvements only have an impact on capital and shareholders.
That in this new labor scenario they are not reaching salaries, and that is why they have been stagnant in Europe for a decade”.
He believes that a decisive factor in this regard is the global loss of power of the unions: “In the 70s the difference between the salaries of managers and workers was between six and ten times.
Now it is hundreds of times”.
Threatened to become obsolete
Beatriz Espinilla, 39, works in an automobile assembly line. Emilio Fraile
Beatriz Espinilla works
(39 years old) there is a robot that transports the parts to the operators of the assembly line.
“I have been here for 10 years and when I arrived it was already there.
I know it used to be carried by a wheelbarrow driver.
Since I've been here, as far as I know, other positions that have been automated are the ones that were most harmful, which involved positions that end up hurting the worker”, he explains.
The possibility of ending up being replaced by a robbery is something that does not take away his sleep.
“We are more concerned with shortages or the semiconductor crisis,” he says.
He thinks it's good that technology "helps", but he is committed to a "balanced" incorporation.
“I think that people are always going to have to supervise.
There are many processes, many more than it seems, in which we do detailed work that is very difficult for a machine to do.
I can't imagine how a robot can guard a door, which is what I do now.
It may happen in the very distant future, but I don't think I'll get to experience it, ”she adds.
Despite the uncertainty that automation injects into your sector, logistics
(28 years old) identifies some important advantages.
“It's more productive that way and there's less room for error.
We make fewer mistakes, we make fewer physical efforts… Just by not gaining weight, making fewer repetitive movements, that is very noticeable in the body at the end of the day”.
He is especially grateful that he now hardly has to bend down, since the boxes reach a height that does not require this movement.
“But of course”, he qualifies, “you see that with all this they need fewer people.
It is a change that is normal not to like.
It can give you quality of life while you continue working there, but in the long term it is very possible that they will end up doing without you.
It's that what we used to do between 10 can now be done by two people”.
He believes that the incorporation of technology is "good" and that it should be applied quickly,
but at the same time asks "that no one be left out".
“I know it is very difficult, but for example, a tax on machinery when it replaces workers, as is proposed in other countries, would be phenomenal,” says this resident of Guadalajara.
(51 years old) believes that paying at an automatic cashier in a supermarket is "very cold, I don't like it at all".
“In addition, as a customer it does not mean any savings, so I do not understand why choose that option.
It's not that it's much faster either”, says this woman from Madrid, who has been in distribution for 20 years.
“The first thing I thought when I saw one of those automatic boxes is that we were going to disappear quickly, but we are still here.
I think that at the squad level we are more or less the same as before”, says this Madrid native.
She criticizes that this type of service does not include personalized attention: “I don't know, it seems to me that it shows that some companies only want benefits, that they don't care if a machine eats the human being.
In the end, the companies have the advantage of knowing that people are not going to go to small businesses because they cannot compete on prices”.
He regrets, precisely, that the technological innovations that imply savings for the company do not translate into a drop in these prices or an improvement in working conditions.
“I am confident that those customers who have a feeling with me will continue to prefer me over a machine”, she concludes.
(36 years old) is
and general secretary of the Spanish Union of Railway Machinists.
From his position, he knows first-hand what possibilities there are for the trains to end up operating on their own: "This has always been the case, but in the railway industry it is very difficult for there to be rapid developments."
This is due to the connections between networks, regulated by European regulations that change very slowly.
However, there are closed-circuit networks, those that are not connected to the others, in which automation does make its way: “In the Barcelona Metro there are lines that operate automatically and soon there will also be in Madrid”.
All in all, Martín assures that the trains will never operate completely alone: “There must always be personnel on the train.
If you get stuck between two stations, 50 kilometers from each,
you need someone who knows how to get it going again.”
“When high speed started in the 90s, everyone said that in 10 years everything would be high speed.
And 30 years later there is still a lot of conventional rail and it is the one that transports the most passengers.
Like the autonomous car, which seemed imminent and look at all the legal and social problems they are having ”, he adds.
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