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Workers worry about robots stealing jobs, just not their jobs. They may be overconfident

Laura Wronski, senior research scientist, and Jon Cohen, chief research officer, SurveyMonkey
Key Points
  • Twenty-seven percent of workers in a new CNBC/SurveyMonkey workplace poll say technology is currently threatening their jobs.
  • Workers age 18 to 34 are more than twice as likely as those 55 and up to see themselves as being ahead of the technology skills curve.
  • Employees in two industries — airlines & aerospace and advertising & marketing — are those mostly likely to say technology is currently threatening their work.
Source: CafeX

In San Francisco today, you can get a cup of coffee made by a robot barista, then walk past the headquarters of companies — Airbnb, Uber, Pinterest — that have disrupted the way work is done in industries as diverse as hospitality, taxi services, public transit, retail and more. If a robot can pour you a macchiato, what other jobs, even those we feel confident only humans can do, will soon be overtaken by technology?

New results from the first CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness Index dig into workers' fears about technological change as they relate to job satisfaction. The overall index score of 71 out of 100 shows that workers are by and large satisfied with their jobs, especially in terms of how much meaning they derive from work, how much their colleagues appreciate what they do and how much autonomy they have at work.

As robots continue to replace humans at some types of work, those three factors of workplace happiness could be particularly at risk. After all, how can your co-worker appreciate you if it's a machine? How can you control the tasks you take on or the way you do them if you're just one part of a big automated assembly line? Luckily, but perhaps also a bit naively, the survey results indicate that most workers today don't yet feel the threat of technological disruption.

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Few people — just 7 percent — say they are "falling behind" at keeping up with technology and innovation at work. A majority (60%) rate themselves "about average," and nearly a third (32%) actually say they're "ahead of the curve." The few who are falling behind, however, have lower scores on those three measures mentioned above — recognition, autonomy and meaning — and, accordingly, a lower-than-average index composite score of 67.

Young people perceive a slight advantage. Confidence relating to technology spikes higher among younger workers, with those ages 18 to 34 more than twice as likely as those ages 55 and up to see themselves as being ahead of the curve.

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Similar data from the Pew Research Center show that automation and other technological changes haven't negatively impacted most workers. A majority (57%) say they've been unaffected by technological change, and more people say their careers have been helped by new technology than have been hurt.

Looking forward, most expect this technological change to continue apace or even speed up. In a Fortune/SurveyMonkey poll conducted last year, 72 percent of people said they expect artificial intelligence to take away more jobs than it creates in the next 10 years. That's a lot of potential for disruption to the workforce, but it's hard for workers to look ahead to their own future of work with clarity.

The threat is a workplace stress creator

Despite this widespread belief that the workplace will look very different a decade from now than it does today, just 27 percent of workers in the new CNBC/SurveyMonkey poll say technology is currently threatening their jobs. But, those few who say they are "falling behind" in keeping up with technology are more than twice as likely as those who are keeping up or ahead of the curve to say that technology is a threat. This threat is clearly a stressor; these workers who feel like they're falling behind are also more likely to say they've considered quitting their job in the past three months (44 percent vs. 28 percent among those who are keeping up, and 30 percent among those who are ahead of the curve).

One way to counteract this threat from unpredictable technological change is retraining. Companies and managers who are looking ahead to the changes their industries will soon face can help their employees continue to feel like they are prepared. Employees who trust their bosses "a lot" to prepare them for changes in technology at work are one-third as likely to say they've recently considered quitting (18% vs. 61%) compared to workers who don't trust their bosses at all.

No one wants to think that their own job could become obsolete, but in truth every industry will be affected by changes to technology. At present, workers in two industries — airlines & aerospace and advertising & marketing — are those mostly likely to say technology is currently threatening their work, with more than 4 in 10 workers in each industry (44% and 42%, respectively) expressing this concern. At the other end of the spectrum, a large majority of those in the nonprofit (84%), education, government, or legal industries (80% each) say their job is not currently threatened by changes from technology.

While a robot may never entirely replace a teacher, lawyer or mayor, these jobs will likely require an entirely new set of skills in the future. Workers who are prepared for this change — and the bosses who can help prepare them — will continue to be more satisfied with their jobs and more happy at work.

By Laura Wronski, senior research scientist, and Jon Cohen, chief research officer, SurveyMonkey

The CNBC/SurveyMonkey online poll was conducted March 13–18 among a national sample of 8,664 workers in the United States. Respondents for this survey were selected from the more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Data have been weighted initially for age, race, sex, education and geography using the Census Bureau's American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States age 18 and over, then weighted for age, race, sex, education, employment status and geography using Census Bureau's Current Population Survey to reflect the demographic composition of U.S. employed population. The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. Full results available here.

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Key Points
  • Beyond higher pay, providing workers with opportunities to advance their careers may be the best way to improve employee satisfaction.
  • The results are part of the first CNBC @Work Survey and the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness Index, released today.
  • More training and learning opportunities finished ahead of seemingly popular benefits like more paid time off, a more flexible schedule and increased family benefits.