I used to watch the Bloomberg channel, which specializes in financial news, with my one-year-old daughter. As you might imagine, people in suits talking about bond yield curves generally didn’t hold her attention for very long, but she always stopped to watch when a particular commercial came on.
The spot advertised Bloomberg’s energy research and development branch. Images of technological wonders such as driverless cars, manufacturing robots and 3D printers flashed by at a rapid pace, all set to an upbeat electronic tune (which is what grabbed the attention of my music-loving daughter, who would invariably dance around the room). It concluded with the tagline “Disruption creates opportunity.”
Technology-driven “disruption” is certainly happening on a mass scale and it will only accelerate. A 2018 report by the Royal Bank of Canada predicts that 25 percent of Canadian jobs will be “heavily disrupted” (i.e., largely replaced) by automation over the next decade. An additional 25 percent of Canadians will need to develop new skills to stay employed. AI and automation are claiming not only assembly-line manufacturing, but also jobs ranging from meter-reading to truck-driving to dentistry to sports journalism.
That said, dystopian visions of robots rendering humans obsolete are greatly exaggerated. Disruption does create opportunity – at least for those who know how to adapt. The RBC report highlights the increasing importance of “human skills” – things like critical thinking, problem-solving and emotional intelligence. Along with digital literacy, human skills are prerequisites for most of the 2.4 million new jobs the Canadian economy is projected to add by 2021. In the coming years the nation will need fewer payroll clerks, Uber drivers and oilfield workers, and more nurses, architects and app developers.
The RBC report suggests “possible transitions” for workers seeking to escape industries susceptible to automation: a dental assistant could become a graphic designer, for instance, or (curiously) a real estate agent might consider a career in law enforcement. In any case, it’s clear that some workers will make the necessary transitions far more easily and rapidly than others. Industrial revolutions make everyone better off eventually, but in the meantime, they leave millions of people out in the cold, sometimes for decades.
The new economic reality impacts all aspects of society, including the Church. There will certainly be challenges, particularly for churches located in communities dependent on easily-automated jobs. Some parishioners might need to move away in order to find new or better employment, impacting church budgets and manpower. Churches in bustling metropolitan areas may face division between those members who “make it” in the changing economy and those who don’t.
Then again, “disruption creates opportunity.” The Church is a community that ultimately refuses to sort people by the ordinary categories. This refusal is always imperfect and incomplete, but still the Church proclaims that in Christ there are no rich and poor, no “winners” and “losers,” and that our dignity and worth are never based on what we can or cannot do. To those whom the market has deemed failures, the Church declares the boundless love of God in Christ.
Insofar as they are able, Christians ought to work (and vote) to create an economy that provides opportunity for everyone. Any real-world system, however, will inevitably leave people out. For these, the Church has the opportunity to provide emotional and spiritual shelter in the form of a loving community grounded in the truth that what makes us valuable to God can never be automated away.