on October 2, 1998
Jeremy Rifkin has distilled much of what is brewing below the surface in our economy and weaved it into a compelling thesis that deserves serious attention from academia and the public at large. A gifted social scientist and economist, Rifkin transcends the "Megatrends" genre, and provides us with a compelling analysis and dissection of a post-market economy that sits clearly on the horizon. Many who have read and critiqued this book have siezed upon it's liberal view for the future, however, no one has disputed the issues he has raised which clearly depict an economy where labor is in declining demand, and sophisticated computer automation will replace large sectors of our current economy. Perhaps the one flaw in Rifkin's book is that he presents a vision for the future that is polemical in its political orientation. I was deeply disturbed by Mr. Rifkin's findings, because I fear that I could easily become among the ranks of the technologically displaced. But I read this book twice, because I realized that if I am to keep ahead of the game, I need to know which way the wind is blowing, and ensure that I don't fall victim to what millions of workers are destined for in the years to come. With out a doubt, the most prescient and trenchant non-fiction book I've read in ten years.
on June 13, 2000
"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."
Thus ends the book, leaving no neat little answers - negative OR positive, but urging us to open our eyes and look around us. I'd seen him on C-span and promptly ordered his book through Amazon. This was when it first came out in hardcover and my oldest son, assured of a future work using skills from his newly obtained Masters in Computer Science, was concerned I was reading such a book. "Isn't he one of those Luddites?" I think of myself as a wanna be Luddite, but I saw no signs of this in the book. Instead, Rifkin seems to be concerned with the coming affects of the Informational Revolution.
The book begins with a history of the Industrial Revolution. He gives us a nice tour of the birth of materialism as a concept created and promoted by economists and businessmen. "The term `consumption," he tells us, "has both English and French roots. In its original form, to consume meant to destroy, to pillage, to subdue, to exhaust. It is a word steeped in violence and until the present century had only negative connotations."
The chapter, "Technology and the Afro-American Experience," addresses the effects of slavery, the supposed freedom of sharecropping, the loss of jobs as a consequence of the invention of the mechanical cotton picker, the rush to the cities and the subsequent loss of jobs as technology slowly progressed. There is a correlation to the success of whichever modern day technology we are experiencing, and the situation in the inner-cities. "Today, millions of African-Americans find themselves hopelesly trapped in a permanent underclass. Unskilled and unneeded, the commodity value of their labor has been rendered virtually useless by the automated technologies that have come to displace them in the new high-tech global economy."
One chapter is entitled "No More Farmers" and discusses the advances of robotizing replacing tasks such as harvesting and livestock management, as well as the end of outdoor agriculture. Other chapters deal with the future for retail, service, blue collar jobs, the declining middle class and the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
In the chapter titled, "A More Dangerous World," he cites the Merva and Fowles study, saying that it "showed a striking correlation between growing wage inequality and increased criminal activity." "Rising unemployment and loss of hope for a better future are among the reasons that tens of thousands of young teenagers are turning to a life of crime and violence."
He does point out that the explosion of the Third Revolution is going to make the social wounds we've tried to heal seem like paper cuts, but does not claim that we should unhook our computers and resist the revolutionary explosion. His suggestion is that we work on `empowering' the Third Sector' - the independent sector - and turn back to community, to helping each other before it is too late. " A new generation might transcend the narrow limits of nationalism and begin to think and act as common memebers of the human race, with shared commitments to each other, the community, and the larger biosphere." He does offer that since hi-tech advances may mean fewer jobs in the market economy, the only way to make sure those whose jobs are lost will be compensated is to have the government supply compensation. Naturally, this gives a flash-back to the welfare system, which I think has freaked out a few reviewers, paralyzing them into a sort of retro response. But Rifkin isn't just talking about the recipients of old - those stereotypical lower-income, under-educated inner city folks, he's talking about many more people. In my family, my middle son is a hands on kind of worker who in the past might have been a farmer. No matter how much education he gets, he isn't one of those who will sit well in the new techno age, and already he's feeling the pressures. The high paying jobs for him are life-threatening, so the kind of work he's hired for is low paying, not enough to support himself, let alone the family he has decided he can't afford to start. Rifkin isn't doing retro work - he suggests tying the subsidized income to service in the community, which he suggests migh help the "growth and development of the social economy and facilitate the long-term transition into a community-centered, service-oriented culture."
His answers are not clearly spelled out - he offers suggestions and insight into where we might be going as a race (the human race). The truth is, we all need to ask some questions and help find the answers. For those whose minds are set firmly in any direction, you'll get from this book very little - for those with open minds, regardless of your political view of the world, you may find this to be a door to the future.
on December 2, 2008
Fast forward, December 2008, and the impending economic collapse of America. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs lost, millions of service sector jobs, near collapse of domestic auto industry, housing and mortgage meltdown, credit card crunch, trillion dollar government bailouts. Most of these jobs will NEVER return. What are all these displaced workers going to do for sustenance? Mr. Rifkin nailed it in this book: The Rise of a Massive Welfare State. That day has arrived. Technology didn't do it, I don't think. Rampant greed and colossal corruption on all levels, including the financial industry and lack of government regulation sent this country over the cliff in a short order of time.
on November 2, 2010
With "The End of Work," Jeremy Rifkin has combined detailed research with insightful analysis to spread a warning message that any amateur futurist, economist, or social commentator needs to consider seriously before rejecting. Rifkin's thesis is simple: human labor has been, to a large extent, replaced by machinery in the production process, and this trend will continue to subsume jobs that require great amounts of skill, as computers and machines become increasingly capable of performing such tasks. The result is going to be a permanently unemployed and underemployed workforce, as labor becomes more extraneous, and the symptoms will be manifest in growing wealth disparity, and an increasingly dangerous world, as the unemployed become politically radicalized, and turn to violence, whether random, economic, and political.
First, I feel compelled to acknowledge the elephant in the room, which is that Rifkin's thesis is decidedly Marxist. The idea of post-scarcity and the replacement of labor with automation, as well as the consequences that Rifkin forewarns of, were all predicted by Karl Marx throughout his career as a political agitator. That Rifkin's prescriptions are more moderate than Marx's does not make the diagnosis less Marxist. As a longtime libertarian and believer in capitalism, I would like to be able to dismiss Rifkin's thesis out of hand, as many reviewers of a conservative bent do and have. However, the care with which Rifkin has researched this book and the consistency of his analysis, as well as his stature as a scholar, compel me to consider his argument more carefully.
One positive trait of the book is that it was written fifteen years ago. As such, it is somewhat dated. Some of the predictions that Rifkin cites and makes have born out, while others have proven untrue. That is the nature of prediction. The intervening time since the book has been published give us experience and a frame to judge Rifkin's predictions. Also, thought the current economic climate of "recession" (not sure that word is appropriate) and combined unemployment and underemployment upwards of 15% make a thesis like Rifkin's all the more compelling now, it lends credence that this book was published in more mild economic times, and is thus not merely reactive, but foresightful.
As for the evidence, hopefully it is not in dispute that income and wealth disparity are increasing in this country. In recent years, the news has been replete with reports of the absorbent increases in executive compensation, in the financial sector but also in the general economy, all while the real wages of the worker have been stagnant. Rifkin cites that in the 1950's, average CEO compensation was 28 times the salary of the average worker. At the time of this book's publishing, this figure had increased to 93 times. I read an article recently that in 2009, in had ballooned to about 220 times. So this prediction has borne out. More importantly, the more comprehensive GINI index of economic disparity has been increasing for decades. This measure is not cited by Rifkin, however.
Rifkin gives a detailed history and recount of the evolution of labor as an institution in the United States, and also in other countries. As should be familiar to most Americans (though perhaps not in this much detail), he recounts how the bulk of labor was once invested in agriculture. As agriculture became increasingly mechanized and more efficient, labor increasingly moved to manufacturing. In the post-war era, as manufacturing has become increasingly automated, the lost jobs have been absorbed by the service sector. In turn, service jobs are in the process of being automated. It is unclear what will come in their stead. The history that Rifkin recounts is detailed, and made for dry reading at the time, but in the end the information was valuable.
In contrast, the analysis of trends and their implications is not dry reading, but holds interest the whole way through. Rifkin discusses the gradual increase in unemployment since the 1950's, and also how this increase does not tell the entire story, because real wages and benefits have been declining over the same period. Increased competition from the Japanese, Japanese innovations in the production process, and the widespread adoption of some of these have also made production more labor intensive. Of course, when this book was written the Japanese were more in the forefront of consciousness, and one wonders if the points made still hold, and if the processes introduced are still relevant.
Rifkin also discusses Say's law, which states that supply creates its own demand and that displaced labor will always eventually be redeployed. Say's law is often advanced by conservatives and free-market economists as a counter-argument to those concerned about unemployment. To this, Rifkin points out that Say's law says nothing of the quality of employment. While high-skill manufacturing jobs have often been replaced by service jobs, these replacements generally pay less, require fewer hours, and have lower benefits. This only exacerbates income disparity. In this case, Say's law holds, but the outcome is far from desirable. Even when most things of value are produced by machines and the value of production accrues to the top echelon, displaced workers will still need to do something, and the result is that they will find jobs for $10 per hour or whatever, doing work that isn't that important. The ultimate result is a "busy-work" economy (my term, not Rifkin's), full of people performing work that provides little value. The recent rise of the financial sector, which in a healthy economy should be a small segment facilitating capital allocation, corroborates this reality.
With the disease diagnosed and the evidence for the diagnosis presented, Rifkin then turns toward the question of prescription and antidote. It should be noted that though Rifkin is often considered a man of the left, his proposals in this area are actually quite moderate. These proposals include reducing the number of hours in the work week in order to "share the work," and a tax credit program that would reward volunteered time in a similar manner that monetary charitable donations are credited for tax purposes, essentially having the government pay individuals for charity work. The idea of the second idea is to revive the idea of community, while combating the problem of technological unemployment. While the goal is admirable, the potency of this proposal is suspect. Similarly, the idea of "sharing the work," may be largely antiquated in the post-industrial era, where labor is less of a fungible commodity and the work week is less well defined. Certainly it could apply to certain low-income sectors, but it has little relevance and is unenforceable in the professional, white-collar corporate world, or in sales. It should also be pointed out that the obvious solution to the problem of technological unemployment, as foreseen by Marx and others, is socialism, which Rifkin does not propose.
All in all, I found this book informative. Rifkin argues his position well, and provides a wealth of information, data, and analysis regarding the problem of technological unemployment. I recommend this book to anybody interested in the underlying causes of our labor economy.
on August 1, 2011
The version of this book that I read has a copyright of 1995, so some of the statistics are dated, but, for the most part, the rest of what the author has to say is very up-to-date. The focus of the book is on automation, and how it has affected jobs and employment. I recently read "Aftershock," by Robert Reich, too. The books complement each other nicely, but I actually think "The End of Work" is more complete and effectively written. A similarity between the two books, I think, is that neither offer credible solutions to the disturbing trends. But that is O.K., as the strength of both books is to define the problem and put it in an historical context.
Rifkin starts out telling us that global unemployment is at the highest level since the 1930s. He also says that the Information Age is here, and it is not going away. Corporate downsizing and the "re-engineering" of organizations to reduce the needs for people also appears to be here to stay. Again, the book being written in 1995, Rifkin says that U.S. corporations are shedding workers at a rate of about two million per year. And, of course, the bulk of the newly created jobs pay far less than the ones lost.
The author acknowledges that more than 75 percent of American workers work at jobs that involve relatively simple, repetitive tasks. Anxious to replace workers with machines, companies make capital investments in machines, not people. History tells the story: In the 1950s, about 33 percent of American workers worked in manufacturing; by 1995, that had dropped to about 17 percent. All this, while productivity soared. And the definition of "full employment" has shifted accordingly. In the `50s, it was about three percent; by the 80s, it was up to five percent. Today, we know that it is probably above seven percent.
The first wave of modern automation was introduced in the `50s. The theory of "trickle-down technology" stresses that producing more for less is of benefit to the U.S. consumer. The related problem of unemployment is supposed to work itself out for the better. Important here is that Americans had to educated to become dedicated consumers. Advertisements encouraged folks to stop making things, themselves. Instead, they were encouraged to buy products at stores, from food to clothing to all kinds of labor-saving devices.
World War II and the post-war boom in government jobs created an atmosphere that encouraged Americans to buy new homes, new cars, new appliances, and to borrow to the hilt. Many held out for a reality of increasing consumer delights in tandem with a world of full employment. But the employment numbers in this "Third Industrial Revolution" lagged. In 1961, the Steel Workers Union reported a loss of 95,000 jobs, as productivity soared. Quite simply, more steel was being produced by fewer people. In other industries, similar numbers were reported. And Black Americans were hit especially hard. By the late `60s, riots had broken out in urban areas across the country.
Similar to what Reich points out in his book, what evolves is an economy that can produce tons of good and services. The problem is that there is a diminishing number of Americans who can afford things. Labor unions have had little success preventing any of this. Frequently, unions settle for re-education and retraining funding, rather than the retention of jobs. And not just blue-collar jobs have been on the line. Middle management types have lost jobs in droves. And none of these jobs seem to be coming back. Rifkin suggests that what is approaching is "a near-workerless world." And this is a global trend.
In 1995, Rifkin says that about half of the world's population was still working in agriculture. But in the U.S. that percentage is below three percent. More and more, populations move to the cities for work, but, says Rifkin, "Much of the human workforce is being left behind and will likely never cross over into the new high-tech global economy." "Continuous-process" production turns out "a massive volume of goods more or less automatically." As early as the 1880s, for example, a machine could turn out 120,000 cigarettes per day. Modern steel plants look more like laboratories than factories, and modern oil refineries, essentially, run themselves.
Today, nine out of ten jobs in New York City are in the service sector. Along with the consumption boom after WWII, employment in the service sector boomed. But by the `80s, improvements with computerized systems and automated processes slowed that growth. Jobs for cashiers and secretaries declined. Even the cooking industry is being automated rapidly. Says, Rifkin, "Being a chef today often means emptying a pouch of already prepared frozen food into hot water or placing it under a microwave for three to seven minutes."
And it can only get worse: "Whole categories of workers will dwindle in number and in some instances disappear altogether. Information technologies are going to get smarter and cheaper...." Benefits from the productivity gains in the Third Industrial Revolution are not trickling down to workers. Wages have been flat, after inflation, for decades. Both the private and public employers are turning to temporary workers without benefits. And even advanced degrees in education may not pay off any more. And, in sync with the Reich book, Rifkin says that the rich are simply getting richer "largely at the expense of the rest of the American workforce."
Rifkin says that one in ten Americans rely on food stamps. I think in 2011, that is now one in seven. He talks about food banks, and the inability of the average worker to buy a home. Reich is quoted in the book as asking, "What do we owe one another as members of the same society who no longer inhabit the same economy?
Rifkin does not suggest that we want to return to a world where workers put in 80 hours per week to make a living wage. Nor does he suggest that we should ever expect masses of workers to be hired again for work that can also be done by machines. Nor does he suggest than most folks will somehow be happy substituting work for leisure, even if they get paid for it. He does make a pitch for non-profit organizations and volunteer opportunities, suggesting that folks get paid by tax credits, if there are no wages involved. But, in the end, Rifkin has little to offer in alternatives to the demise that automated factories can pump out much more than the general population, many without jobs, can afford. He ends the book with this:
"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."
on December 23, 2012
This may have been one of the top 1-2 books I've read this year - which needs to be contextually framed by the fact that I typically have time to read no more than 4-5 books each year anyway. Maybe I'm just "extra good" at the selectivity of the books that I choose, but this one was really quite good. It explores the multiple dimensions of increased productivity, work, an increasing population - and the continued and rapid encroachment of technology in the displacement of workers. Most of those workers up to now have been more production-oriented, but will the rise of computers and technology in the future signal the beginning of the loss of jobs for knowledge workers? Given that this book was written close to 15 years ago - it was prescient in some of its predictions, and especially telling in light of the recent (and persistent) recession - and where 1 in 5 low wage jobs were lost in the recession, but in the recovery, low wage jobs have represented close to 3 in 5 jobs created. Read this book, but don't plan on having a good night's sleep on the day you finish it (unless you're lucky enough to already be retired).
on November 13, 2014
This is a great book... Really lays out the solutions to some hard hitting problems of our day... Finally a book that looks at the real issues at hand from a logical... and dare I say it... scientific approach... to why things are the way they are and how we got here... This is a must read for anyone wondering why they can't find work in their field after having put in so much work to get the proper credentials and degrees to accomplish their chosen path... This book really gets your mind thinking outside the box that we have been programmed into believing... Leads you down a new path of seeing the world for the way it really is... and hopefully takes you in new directions that helps you jump the hurdles that have been placed in your way to achieving your goals... In any endeavor you must first understand the problem... this book is a study in what the problem is...
on October 10, 2000
I must admit that when I read this book, I was a bit dissappointed at the lack of new information. As a student of labor history, I had read previously many of the ideas and concepts that Rifkin expands upon in several other books. I only wished I had picked up this one book, prior to reading all the others. It would have saved me much time and money.
In short, Rifkin decribes the transition of the worker from pre-industrial revolution, through the era of machines and mass-production, and the advent of the information age in which he predicts there will be fewer and fewer workers. His analysis describes how this effects the worker, organizational make-up, employment relationships, and even how government has been forced to change to accomodate the modern economy.
I believe that anyone interested in the dynamics of technology and globalism on the workforce will find Rifkin's work very interesting, well-written, and easy to read.
on April 25, 2013
The author wrote this book years ago, based on the insight that corporations are replacing labor with computer software, robots and fear imposed to drive more productivity. Those ughly forces are still very much at work. However, the author has subsequently written The Third Industrial Revolution, which shows how we can shift from fossil fuels to renewables and create more work by creating an abundance of energy.
on December 12, 1999
As with many futurists, their analysis of trends are insightful and can provide a glimpse of the future; however, often their glimpses are of the extreme nature. Having studied trends regarding the advancement of technology, I came to the same conclusion Rifkin did, that sooner or later work and income must be disassociated with one another. A guaranteed income is one answer to this. Just as wage labor made no since in pre-industrial eras, so will wage labor make little since in futuristic economies. Societies that insist stubbornly to this notion are doomed for collapse. My concern with American society is that we won't make this jump until economic catastrophe hits us. Just as it took a Great Depression to convince policy makers that the Federal Govt. did have a role in preventing poverty to occur through social insurance mechanism, so to will it take an economic upheaval to convince the populace that wage labor as a primary means of allocating income in this society is antiquated and cannot continue.