John Oliver dives into the complicated world of robots taking our jobs on Last Week Tonight


Everyone is talking about automation, careers, and just how easy it might be for robots to snag human jobs. John Oliver dives into the complicated truth.

Talking about jobs is a loaded subject. It’s all dread and possibility at the same time. Just think about asking a kid what they might want to be. Depending on their age, you might get fantastical answers or, as they get older, more and more responsible ones. Well, sometimes, anyway.

But it’s not like grown-ups are exempt from thinking, worrying, and dreaming over jobs. In fact, that’s a primary theme of modern adult life. That was definitely the case for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Trump and his supporters ran in part on the scary tale of American jobs being drained by a foreign Daniel Plainview, sucking all of the jobs out from under our feet.

Now, it is true that some manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. That isn’t the whole story, though. To get the full angle, we need to turn back home and look at an issue that’s been part of the American jobs landscape for generations: automation.

That was John Oliver’s focus on the latest episode of Last Week Tonight. It’s a timely issue, but not so new that your own grandparents didn’t think of it. Really, automation has been on workers’ minds since at least the Industrial Revolution, when steam-powered machines were set to wipe out great swathes of job opportunities.

“Luckily, a robot could never be a late-night host,” said Oliver, who had just finished a minutes-long segment where he simply listed stupid alternate names for countries. Could a computer brain ever come up with that sort of artistic integrity? Not yet, at least.

Automation is complicated, of course. It’s not necessarily true that, as an Oxford study claimed, automation is going to do away with half of our jobs. Further research has produced a variety of results, some a little sunnier than others.

Really, there are no easy answers about the course of automation. Robot workers generally increase productivity and maximize profits for business owners. That’s also made goods cheaper and increased safety. Look at logging, which is one of the deadliest professions in the United States. Yes, robotic tree cutters may displace workers, but, as one professional quoted by Oliver says, those same workers now face a much lower fatality rate.

From a business owner’s point of view, all of the above benefits are pretty great. Workers, however, are often and periodically worried, and not without total cause.

Let’s take another example, this time the rise of automated teller machines (ATMs). These machines first showed up in the United States in 1969 and became increasingly widespread as the years progressed. Clips from Last Week Tonight show bank employees (some with distinctly ’90s hair) worrying over the future of their jobs.

As it turns out, their jobs were actually fairly safe. Bank teller employee numbers actually grew over the years. How did that happen? It was actually thanks to the ATMs. Before the machines arrived, tellers were often tied up with the repetitive work of making deposits and withdrawals for customers. With the grunt work taken over by machines, tellers were freed up to do a wider and potentially more lucrative body of work.

What’s the lesson here? People’s jobs won’t necessarily go away, but they may change and shift. The kinds of work we have today were practically inconceivable only 20 years ago. What kind of work will people take on in the coming decades?

It’s not a perfect trade, in the meantime. People might need new training and those new jobs might not pay the same as old ones. Truckers, for instance, aren’t primed to jump into the burgeoning technology job market after self-driving vehicles take over shipping. Their average age, 55 years old, and educational backgrounds could make career changes all the more difficult.

This doesn’t have to be an apocalyptic scenario, though. Job automation has been around for a long time. Anxiety about careers and economies have been part of our social landscape for even longer. With thoughtful leadership and a clear grasp of the future, we can be just fine.

But, then there’s Donald Trump.

Right after the election, Trump made a big deal about “saving” jobs at Carrier, which agreed to keep its plant in the United States instead of moving to Mexico. Except, whoops, the investment in the Carrier factory was to automate in order to keep up with the economics of it. Yes, that meant that human employees were dropped in order to make that happen.

According to Oliver, Trump hasn’t done anything of merit to help displaced workers. What about retraining programs? Perhaps those truck drivers, facing increasing uncertainty about their futures, might appreciate a course or two on programming.

What about assistance programs like wage insurance or expanded income tax credits? None of those have appeared in any substantial manner, either. It’s so more convenient, at least in the short run, to blame other nations. The boogeyman of foreigners luring companies away from American soil and American workers makes for compelling stump speeches. Too bad it’s only a small part of the truth.

With all of that in mind, what will careers of the future look like? If the White House can’t stand to face it, we can at least try to adjust our own vision.

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We’re probably facing “episodic careers”, as described by journalist Farai Chideya. People are almost certainly going to change careers and jobs as a matter of course. We are probably past the days of 30 or 40 years at a single company. The renewed picture makes for an interesting segment in which John Oliver tries to get cute kids to think about the reality of their future careers, which may or may not have room to be a full-time “mermaid doctor.”

Then again, it also means John Oliver has to explain his own career to children, some of whom think that a robot could definitely hack it behind a late night desk. It’s a gentle end to a very open-ended, question heavy episode. Even then, Oliver and company’s take on the whole affair will make you want to fill out a career aptitude test in a fit of late-night anxiety.