Amazon’s checkout-free move sounds warning on jobs

amazon-go

In a prescient indicator of the future of retail, Amazon this week opened its first Amazon Go store in its home town of Seattle, an 167-square-metre grocery store that requires no checkout lines – not even self-checkout.

Instead, customers can just grab whatever items they want and leave the store – the order gets logged through instore sensors and charged to your Amazon account via a special app.

The ambitious foray into physical retailing is just the beginning of Amazon’s plans to open more than 2000 retail stores across the US, including over 400 bookstores, which it hopes will allow it to track consumer buying behaviour offline. No doubt we won’t have long to wait before the shelves of such stores are also being stocked by robots.

The shift to checkout-free shopping could turn traditional retail on its head. Its benefits in terms of convenience are obvious – but the human costs are yet to be determined. It’s the latest salvo in a shift towards an automated retail sector that will have far-reaching implications for the future of work.

A recent report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) predicted that 40 per cent of all existing Australian jobs will disappear in the coming two decades because of technological advancements – with jobs such as economists, real estate agents and accountants likely to become redundant or much depleted.

It further warned that automation will replace mining, manufacturing and agriculture jobs – but that those who retain a high level of skill that embraces computerisation will be in a better position to embrace the inevitable changes.

Meanwhile, another CSIRO report from earlier this year on the future of the Australian workforce identified key mega-trends in the workforce including an “explosion of device connectivity” meaning robotic devices can perform many tasks more quickly, safely and efficiently than humans.

It also predicted a significant rise in the number of self-employed or freelance workers using online or “gig economy” type platforms including sites such as Freelancer.com, Airtasker or Deliveroo. In the US, one in three workers is currently an independent contractor, and a recent Intuit report predicts that contingent workers will exceed 40 per cent of the workforce by 2020.

Although in Australia such workers still only occupy a small segment of the workforce, their number is difficult to track and is growing fast. As more and more workers find themselves on the margins of a hollowing out job market, such contingent jobs will become a necessity for many to make ends meet.

Australian unions and employer groups have already pointed to the loss of job protection and basic employment rights that could result without proper government regulation of the sector. Now is the time to identify and harness the opportunities presented by technology to ensure they improve rather than compromise our working lives.

For government, the challenge is to provide support for education and training to help future workers transition to better jobs which offer longevity in a radically shifting job market and act fast to enshrine appropriate regulatory regimes in the share economy.

For workers navigating a career trajectory– jobs in high-skilled labour will increase while more menial jobs will become scarcer. A good place to start would be to ensure upskilling in work areas that can’t easily be performed by machines.

But the other issue highlighted by the Amazon Go model is that the decline of human populated workplaces and the hollowing out of jobs in retail and manufacturing industries will have human costs. Convenience for some could mean increased poverty and alienation for others.

First published at The Age Business Day

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