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Editorial

Labor Day 2038: Will you have a job or be replaced by a robot?

Michael Brown/Fotolia

Workers this Labor Day can celebrate that Massachusetts mandated a $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave.

But in years to come, these victories may seem quaint as automation becomes the biggest threat to workers. That future may already be arriving.

Think self-driving cars, self-serve checkouts at CVS and Target, and the robotic kitchen at Boston restaurant Spyce, where you order a Thai chicken bowl via touch screen and watch machines make your meal.

Take a look at this sobering analysis from McKinsey & Co. on the automation potential of the Massachusetts workforce over the next two decades. Robots may replace some job functions across a swath of sectors:

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■ 74 percent of tasks in food and hospitality

■ 61 percent of tasks in transportation, warehousing

■ 54 percent of tasks in manufacturing

■ 53 percent of tasks in retail.

Even the health care industry isn’t immune, with technology potentially replacing about a third of tasks. Machines can monitor vitals, and devices can administer medicine automatically. The upshot is that, according to McKinsey, the majority of occupations can expect about 30 percent of their tasks to be automated.

How will workers survive? Well, a surefire way to avoid being replaced by a robot is to become a psychiatrist or lawmaker — two professions that McKinsey says are among the least likely to be automated.

Everyone else needs to prepare. Labor leaders are well aware of the coming tidal wave, and they’re not waiting for their members to get washed out.

Take, for example, Boston’s Unite Here Local 26, which is actively negotiating a contract for about 5,000 hotel employees it represents. Five years ago, technology displacing workers wasn’t a concern. Today the issue is very much part of bargaining talks with the prospect of automated hotel check-in, room service by robots, and other innovations not yet invented.

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“There is no stopping that progress,” said Brian Lang, president of Local 26. “We want to make sure we have an equal seat at the table and how it’s implemented and the impact it has on our members.”

The union wants to make sure workers who are replaced by automation have time to look for other jobs or be retrained for other positions — including the ones created by those technological advances.

That’s the right attitude, and that’s what it will take for humans to adjust to a revolution driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning. It will require massive retraining of the workforce and rethinking higher education so that employees become lifelong learners. College-educated and white-collar workers are likely to nimbly adapt; it’s everyone else who should worry. If we think income inequality is one of the scourges of our times, it will only get worse if we stay the course.

The transformation is happening so rapidly that it can’t be the responsibility of one worker, one company, one government, or one university. It will require a fundamental shift in how we prepare kids and employees — and that change needs to take root now before robots make even more humans obsolete.

Are we ready? That’s the question worth contemplating on this Labor Day, while most humans are still in the driver’s seat.