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The End of Work Hardcover – December 28, 1994
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From Publishers Weekly
In this challenging report, social activist Rifkin (Biosphere Politics) contends that worldwide unemployment will increase as new computer-based and communications technologies eliminate tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors. He traces the devastating impact of automation on blue-collar, retail and wholesale employees, with a chapter devoted to African Americans. While a small elite of corporate managers and knowledge workers reap the benefits of the high-tech global economy, the middle class continues to shrink and the workplace becomes ever more stressful, according to Rifkin. As the market economy and public sector decline, he forsees the growth of a "third sector"-voluntary and community-based service organizations-that will create new jobs with government support to rebuild decaying neighborhoods and provide social services. To finance this enterprise, he advocates scaling down the military budget, enacting a value-added tax on nonessential goods and services and redirecting federal and state funds to provide a "social wage" in lieu of welfare payments to third-sector workers. 50,000 first printing; author tour.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Global unemployment is now at its highest levels since the Great Depression. Rifkin (Biosphere Politics, LJ 5/15/91) argues that the Information Age is the third great Industrial Revolution. A consequence of these technological advances is the rapid decline in employment and purchasing power that could lead to a worldwide economic collapse. Rifkin foresees two possible outcomes: a near workerless world in which people are free, for the first time in history, to pursue a utopian life of leisure; or a world in which unemployment leads to an even further polarization of the economic classes and a decline in living conditions for millions of people. Rifkin presents a highly detailed analysis of the technological developments that have led to the current situation, as well as intriguing, yet alarming, theories of what is to come. Highly recommended for both general and business collections.
Gary W. White, Pennsylvania State Univ., Harrisburg
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Automation is really moving at a rapid pace.