Attack of the Robots (on Middle-Aged Workers)

There may be good reasons to automate, but an MIT study says organizations are throwing out older workers first to fit the machines.

The factory floor could accommodate 20 welders, but the manufacturer never had more than eight of them. The company certainly had more than enough work, but those highly skilled middle-aged workers were just too hard to find. So, instead of operating at less than half capacity forever, the firm spent money on installing robots that could weld—and then fired the eight experienced human welders.

Robots are considered the vanguard of innovation, but it turns out that numerous organizations are calling on real-life R2-D2s to fill in the gaps of the aging industrial workforce. A new multinational study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says 35% of the time, the advancing age of the workforce was essentially the top reason for bringing in robots. Within the United States, the research showed the same pattern. Korn Ferry senior client partner Mary Elizabeth Sadd has seen several of her manufacturing clients go through a similar calculus. “One has a workforce with an average age of 60, and the kids who grow up there leave,” she says. “They have to do more automated work because they don’t have the workforce available.”

Few in the corporate world would question adding robots, but doing so could inadvertently expose a firm to accusations of age discrimination. Employment law, for the most part, does not address robots and artificial intelligence. Yet experts say that any time a company starts replacing workers of a certain group it can open itself up to accusations of discrimination. At a minimum, companies could be unnecessarily getting rid of loyal, highly skilled employees. “If you have employees who’ve proven their competence and loyalty, it would be foolish to fire them,” says Juan Pablo González, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and sector leader of the firm’s Professional Services practice.

The MIT study’s coauthors looked at demographic, technological, and industry-level data across 60 countries from the early 1990s through the mid-2010s and concluded that the older the workforce, the more likely companies invested in robots. Indeed, aging accounted for not only 35% of the variation in robot use among countries but also 20% of the variation in imports of robots.

The issue is particularly acute as leaders push to digitally transform their companies. Bringing in robots is a big topic in workforce transformation: one study in 2017 dramatically predicted that 800 million people could have their jobs taken away by robots or other forms of automation over the next two decades. However, there are effective ways to both automate and keep middle-aged workers engaged. Reskilling and mentoring are critical, experts say. “It can be done. There’s no reason to be totally pessimistic on digitization,” says Andy De Marco, Korn Ferry’s vice president human resources for the Americas. For instance, those experienced workers, who often know the products they manufacture inside and out, could transition to a sales or maintenance force to provide expertise to clients.

Leaders might want to reframe their goals on digital transformation as well. Paul Lambert, a Korn Ferry senior client partner, is currently working with two firms in Europe as they design factories for the future. Robots will eliminate the need for humans to do some of the toughest jobs, but the leaders also don’t want to get rid of the employees themselves. “You might be looking only at the jobs that are being replaced,” Lambert says. “Instead, look at the other opportunities that it can create for these highly skilled workers.”