Editor's Note

Facing the Future of Work

FP’s editor in chief introduces our July issue on how to adapt to robots, AI, trade wars, and an aging world.

The Red Dress illustration for Foreign Policy
The Red Dress illustration for Foreign Policy

In the last few years, it has felt like every big election has focused on jobs and the threats they (supposedly) face: from trade, from immigrants, and, most accurately, from technology.

No wonder. Until recently, the forecasts were almost unanimously grim: The robots were coming, we were told, and they’d soon make us humans redundant. In the summer of 2015, the Atlantic captured the panic with a cover story titled “A World Without Work,” which warned that the moment when machines make workers obsolete “may finally be arriving.”

Then, on March 18 of this year, a self-driving car hit and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona — and the conversation began to shift. Suddenly the fear that humans would soon be superfluous started to seem a little less likely. Around the same time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a new study that gave intellectual and statistical heft to this idea. Yes, automation will supplant some workers, the report found. But not nearly as many as we once thought and not nearly as soon.

As a result, what exactly we should expect work to look like in the future has now become a lot more complicated and the discussions about it much more nuanced. Which is why Foreign Policy has devoted this special issue to making sense of the emerging reality.

While the questions still outnumber the answers, a few themes have started to surface. As Molly Kinder argues in “Learning to Work With Robots,” new technologies will create both winners and losers. Artificial intelligence won’t eliminate human labor; in some cases, it will even produce new jobs. But automation is rapidly changing the nature of work, and governments must help workers adapt. Ryan Avent explores this idea further. In “Then They Came for the Lawyers,” he shows how manual laborers won’t be the only ones forced to contend with a shifting workplace — AI will also change the lives of doctors, teachers, and other professionals.

Adaptation is key, but it’s not the only task ahead of us. In “Protect Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself,” Michael Lind warns that retraining workers won’t be enough; governments must also reshape their trade policies to reflect the new era.

Of course, despite the new developments and the strategies meant to deal with them, automation still poses plenty of risks. In “Closing the Factory Doors,” Christina Larson shows how automated factories, by replacing human textile and other light manufacturing workers, may deprive poor nations of a traditional route out of poverty.

But the key point is that the news is far from uniformly bad. FP’s Ravi Agrawal shows how the much-criticized gig economy is proving a boon for the developing world (see “Why India Gives Uber 5 Stars”). And as FP’s Rhys Dubin reminds us in “There’s No Such Thing as a Stable Career,” constant change has been a fact of life for as long as there has been work to do — just ask lectors and longshoremen. Indeed, just about the only factor that has remained the same is humans’ ability to adjust to new circumstances and generally make their lives better in the process. Big changes are coming, and plenty of them. But there’s no reason to think we won’t weather them in typical fashion — by working smart and working hard.

Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman

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