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A TCI Book Review

The End of Work - The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era

Jeremy Rifkin
Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1995

Rifkin maintains that we are now in the throes of a 'third industrial revolution', which has been going on since the end of World War II. The 'first industrial revolution' occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when steam power first became developed and used extensively, and replaced human labor in mines and factories. Next, the 'second industrial revolution', in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, powered by fossil fuels of coal and oil, replaced human labor at an accelerated pace in the workplace. In both the first and second industrial revolutions, though, the economic niches and opportunities opened up by the new forms of power offset the loss of jobs. However, Rifkin does not see this happening with the 'third industrial revolution' (which he also calls the 'Information Age'):

"In the past, when new technologies have replaced workers in a given sector, new sectors have always emerged to absorb the displaced laborers. Today all three of the traditional sectors of the economy - agriculture, manufacturing and service - are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment rolls. The only new sector emerging is the knowledge sector, made up of a small elite of entrepreneurs, scientists, technicians, computer programmers, professional educators and consultants. While this sector is growing, it is not expected to absorb more than a fraction of the hundreds of millions who will be eliminated in the next several decades in the wake of revolutionary advances in the information and communication sciences." (p. xvii)

Toward the end of the book he re-states this thesis:

"The apostles and evangelists of the Information Age entertain few if any doubts about the ultimate success of the experiment at hand. They are convinced that the Third Industrial Revolution will succeed in opening up more job opportunities than it forecloses and that dramatic increases in productivity will be matched by elevated levels of consumer demand and the opening up of new global markets to absorb the flood of new goods and services that will become available. Their faith, and for that matter their entire world view, hinges on the correctness of those two propositions.

The critics, on the other hand, as well as a growing number of people already left at the wayside of the Third Industrial revolution, are beginning to question whether the new jobs are going to come from. In a world where sophisticated information and communications technologies will be able to replace more and more of the global workforce, it is unlikely that more than a fortunate few will be retrained for the relatively scarce high-tech scientific, professional and managerial jobs made available in the emerging knowledge sector....

Then there is the oft-heard argument that new technologies, products and services not yet even imaginable will come along, providing new business opportunities and jobs for millions. Critics, however, point out that any new product lines introduced in the future will probably require far fewer workers to assemble, produce and deliver and thus not add significant numbers to the employment rolls Even if a product with a universal market potential were to emerge today - one similar to radio or television - its production would likely be highly automated and require few on-line workers." (p. 288)

A major problem with this situation according to Rifkin is that under the present system, this lack of employment means in turn that many households will lack the purchasing power to participate fully in society, to buy the goods and services produced by the economy. (In a sense, he notes, this is a reversal of Henry Ford's philosophy of paying his workers a sufficient wage so that they could afford the very cars that they were producing.)

Much of the book is a detailed recitation of fects and figures from around the world, showing how employment in traditionally key sectors - agriculture, manufacturing, and the service sector - is dwlndling, and is unlikely to be replaced by new jobs. Ultimately, Rifkin sees no way to stop or reverse the trends of automation and technological development that are creating 'the end of work'. He does, though, present some policy options for governments to consider to ease the transition and to deal with a future situation where there is not enough meaningful work for all. These include:

  • a shorter work week (he suggests a 30-hour week)
  • a guaranteed annual income (coupled with a requirement for individuals to work for welfare)
  • a revised tax system that would allow deductions for time spent in volunteer, charitable and not-for-profit organizations (what Rifkin terms 'shadow wages')

This latter option he sees as actually a very attractive one, and suggests that this 'third sector' could emerge as a viable employment alternative for individuals (in addition to the private sector ('the first sector') and government ('the second sector'). This would provide a meaningful occupation to millions, and would (he says) re-connect them with the American tradition of volunteerism and philanthropy (although one must question whether it is true volunteerism in this case, if they are receiving financial compensation in any form).

He ends by underscoring the point that we are at a crossroads, and that our safe transition to another era will depend on our foresight and determination:

"We are entering a new age of global markets and automated production. The road to a near-workerless economy is within sight. Whether that road leads to a safe haven or a terrible abyss will depend on how well civilization prepares for the post-market era that will follow on the heels of the Third Industrial Revolution. The end of work could spell a death sentence for civilization as we have come to know it. The end of work could also signal the beginning of a great social transformation, a rebirth of the human spirit. The future lies in our hands." (pp. 292, 293).




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