The “overwhelming majority” of Australians are concerned about robots destroying jobs and would back a government job guarantee to combat this, according to a new survey.

A survey of 1,075 Australians, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by Unions NSW, found that more than 80 per cent of respondents believed that automation and robots will replace much of the work currently being done by humans by 2050.

It also found that nearly 70 per cent of those surveyed would back the idea of a job guarantee, where the government would provide jobs paying at least the minimum wage to people who couldn’t find one in the private sector.

More than 65 per cent of respondents also agreed that it should be illegal for employers to force employees to work unpaid overtime in jobs paying less than $100,000 per annum.

The survey shows that Australians expect the federal government to have plans in place for the future of work and to combat the rising popularity of artificial intelligence and machine learning, Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said.

“Australians have lost faith in the promises of trickle-down economists and small government ideologues,” Morey said. “They know a robot army is about to invade the labour market and they want to know the government has a plan to secure their future.

According to the OECD, more than one in three jobs will be gone within 15 to 20 years thanks to robotics and AI.

“Without a plan, this will unleash social turmoil,” Morey said. “Jobs are the main mechanism we have for distributing income in this country. Across our supermarkets, banks, public transport and mines, robots are replacing people. This creates a direct transfer of wealth from workers to shareholders.”

New jobs

But leading artificial intelligence researcher and Professor of AI at UNSW and Data61 Toby Walsh said these discussions often overlook the fact that robotics will create countless jobs as well.

“These are important issues,” Walsh told Information Age. “The debate focuses on jobs that might be replaced and often ignores all the jobs that will be created. It also ignores the impact of changing demographics as we all live longer and spend more time in retirement.”

But a “period of significant disruption” is inevitable, and governments should be considering some major changes, Walsh said.

“Perhaps we can change to a four-day working week?” he said. “Studies in New Zealand and the UK have shown people can be just as productive – and can be paid as much – and are unsurprisingly happier.”

The survey also found that more than half of the respondents believe that the work they are currently doing will be completed by robots or computers within the next 30 years.

The notion of a Universal Basic Income – a fixed payment made to all adult individuals that allows people to meet their basic needs – had less support than a job guarantee, with 56 per cent opting for the latter.

Technology and the rise of robotics needs to be harnessed for the social good and to address inequality, Morey said.

“Technology must serve people, not the other way around,” he said. “This research shows that Australians support bold measures, such as a federal jobs guarantee and a ban on unpaid overtime. Political debate in this country is decades behind community sentiment.”

Walsh said the main focus should be on ensuring Australians have the skills needed to prepare for these jobs of the future.

“In my view, the most important conversation is how we ensure people are qualified for the jobs of the future,” Walsh said.

“What do we teach young people today? And how do we help people already in the workforce to re-skill?”