Is ‘The End of Work’ in Sight?

We have entered the third great industrial revolution, as computer and communications technologies alter the fabric of the contemporary workforce, eliminating millions of jobs, permanently. In the book The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin, author of a dozen books on economics, science, and other topics, writes about the ways in which the economy is being restructured, as jobs in the three traditional sectors of the economy--agriculture, manufacturing, and the service industries--are rapidly being eliminated.

Rifkin discusses how technology is polarizing the world’s population into two “warring forces”: A group of “symbolic analysts” who control technology and production; and a much larger group of displaced workers left without significant prospect for competing in the technological world. He writes: “While earlier technologies replaced the physical power of human labor, substituting machines for body and brawn, the new computer-based technologies promise a replacement of the human mind itself.”

In the U.S., two million jobs are being downsized right out of existence each year. Compressing job categories, streamlining administration, eliminating layers of traditional management, and replacing full-time work with part-time and contract labor are other ways that companies have found to cut labor costs. While new jobs are being created, they are mostly part-time, low skilled, low paying, and/or temporary.

Technology is making many white-collar jobs redundant, writes Rifkin. As companies around the world are finding new ways to compress time and reduce labor costs, workers are left wondering why the technological revolution did not free them, but rather has led them to working multiple low-tech jobs or straight to the unemployment line.

Think of this: 75% of industrialized nations’ jobs consist of repetitive work that could, and eventually will, be replaced by automation or computers. This means three-quarters of the worlds population could eventually be without work!

The book warns that holding onto the outmoded model of trickle down economics could spell disaster for the global economy. He writes: “Holding on to an old and outmoded economic paradigm in a new postindustrial, post service era could prove disastrous for the global economy and for civilization in the twenty-first century.”

The End of Work makes several suggestions for alleviating this potential economic crisis:

*Adopt a shorter workweek; since the dawn of the Information Age, the average number of hours worked annually has actually increased by approximately one month (163 hours per year). Psychologist/ philosopher Herbert Marcuse said that “automation threatens to render possible the reversal between free time and working time.” A shorter workweek reduces fatigue and increases efficiency, according to company owners. One plan by accountant/consultant Peirre Larrouturan recommends switching the 39 hour work week to 33. This would decrease wages by 5%, however it would increase employment 10%, creating 2 million jobs. Larrouturan proposes profit-sharing to offset the 5% loss in wages.

*Adopt an alternate time schedule (many companies increase productivity by running plants around the clock.) For example, the productivity has tripled at the Grenoble plant of Hewlett Packard because they keep the plant in continual operation seven days a week. Employees are paid the same as if they worked a full-time schedule though they work, on average, six hours less per week. This is seen as a trade-off by management for the worker’s flexibility in terms of hours.

*Expand the civil sector of society, with tax breaks or bonds for volunteer work. Rifkin sees this the most important areas of focus. The so-called “third sector” or social sector is the fastest growing sector in the world. Thousands of non-govermental organizations or NGO’s are involved in rural development, health care, literacy training, legal assistance, food programs, and more. Rifkin writes: “In many developing nations, the third sector is more effective in dealing with local needs than either the public or private sectors.”

*Create a guaranteed minimum annual income. Even Milton Friedman, a neoconservative economist argues that it would be better to give the poor a guaranteed annual income than to finance the costly welfare programs that serve to perpetuate poverty.

In sum, The End of Work warns of a potential collapse of the world economy if steps are not taken rapidly to shift away from the traditional model of capitalist economics toward a new system that takes into account the rapidly changing market.