A book for our times

The End of Work
By Jeremy Rifkin,

Tarcher/Putnam, (NY).
350pp $26.95

Reviewer: J. A. O’Brien

“Global unemployment has now reached its highest level since the great depression of the 1930’s. More than 800 million human beings are now unemployed or underemployed in the world.”

With these words American economist and author Jeremy Rifkin introduces his radical analysis of “Technology, Jobs and Your Future,” – THE END OF WORK – and warns that we could be facing the demise of civilisation as we have come to know it.

From the start of the industrial revolution, machines have been replacing workers. On the land the horse-drawn plough was replaced by the tractor, and then came the combine harvester. And with each new invention, jobs in agriculture decreased and the farm hands became factory hands. But even as new jobs were being created in industry, technology was also “trimming them down as the assembly line followed the lathe, as drills and presses increased their speeds.” At the same time as jobs were being lost in manufacturing, new areas of employment were being created in “service” areas: clerks, typists, salespeople, nurses, teachers, doctors, lawyers, to name but a few.

Rifkin argues that “Service employment saved modern economies from absolutely devastating unemployment.”

Enter the computer – the Third Industrial Revolution begins and the service industries are no longer absorbing the overspill of workers from other areas. In Australian banks, the introduction of automatic teller machines and centralised telephone services has cost the jobs of 30,000 bank employees in the past five years. And the Finance Sector Union predicts “another 40,000 jobs will go,” if more banks are merged.

No longer can we expect a job for life.

Even workers in essential services like electricity, gas and water supply have had their numbers reduced by almost 25% since 1995. In the US more than 47,000 postal workers have been replaced by “automated machines capable of sight recognition.” The new silicone sorters can read addresses and sort mail faster than postal workers.

And it is not only the unskilled and semi-skilled that are being discarded. As the public and private sectors strive to “get more from less” managers and middle managers are joining the ranks of the unemployed.

Rifkin says, “In the 1980s more than 1.5 M mid-level management jobs were eliminated. In the 1990s their ranks are swelling to include upper-middle-management executives as well.”
As unemployment spreads across classes and nations in ever more automated global economy governments everywhere are being forced to admit that there is no “quick fix” to the problem.

He discusses proposals that governments should supply credit at low-interest rates to repair or build new infrastructure in order to revitalise depressed regions and communities. A policy advocated for their respective countries by Prince Charles in Britain and the late B.A. Santamaria in Australia.

But he does not see Public Works projects as being confined to menial work and says serious consideration should be given to include social wages for skilled workers and “even management and professional workers whose labour is no longer valued or needed in the market place.” And advocates “social wage” not welfare.

Rifkin examines proposals and “solutions” such as reducing working hours, job sharing, cutting back on overtime – all requiring the consent of employers, unions and those who still have jobs.

Rethinking the nature of work he regards as the single most pressing concern facing society and he sees it happening through Non Government Organisations and what he terms the “Third Sector”. After the private and public sector he ranks “independent or volunteer” activity as being third in importance in any community. And he sees it as the “most socially responsible” of the three sectors. He cites examples of the many countries where government bodies are forging new working alliances with non-government organisations to create a “social economy”.

In France the government has been to the fore in training and placing the unemployed in third sector activities. A leading French economist says, “The social economy is not measured the way one measures capitalism, in terms of salaries, revenues etc…. The social economy is best understood in terms of results that add considerably to what traditional economics does not know how to or want to measure.”

With such provocative statements the book challenges us to examine our values and attitudes and to seek those results that best serve our world. The work should be standard reading for policy makers of all shades who may be inclined to be too “comfortable and relaxed”. The most sobering aspect of this book is that it was written before the Global Financial Crisis occurred.

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