President Obama, Please Ask Jeremy Rifkin About Jobs And Work

Posted on January 23, 2009


President Barack Obama has mobilized America for CHANGE, and just in time. The great banks of the industrialized world teeter on the brink!  Mighty Microsoft, symbolic leader of the technological revolution, cuts 5,000 jobs! Massive layoffs are rumored at mighty IBM!

Jeremy Rifkin predicted economic turmoil from the Third Industrial Revolution in his book, The End of Work, published by Tarcher/Putnam in 1995. The End of Work predates by 10 years Thomas Friedman’s ground-breaking The World Is Flat. Rifkin anticipated the logical consequences of the following three-headed Hydra:

  • Re-engineering of corporations
  • Globalization of the economy, and
  • The Third Industrial Revolution.

Writing in 1995, Mr. Rifkin correctly predicted the economic challenges we would face in the early decades of the 21st century:

“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.”

Before enacting the next economic stimulus package, President Obama should contact the controversial American economist, Jeremy Rifkin, and summon him home from Europe, where he has been busy advising the leaders of the European Union in recent years. Mr. Rifkin predicted exactly the nature and the causes of the present turmoil:

“The Third Industrial Revolution is forcing a worldwide economic crisis of monumental proportions as millions lose their jobs to technological innovation, and global purchasing power plummets. . .”

“A near-workerless world is fast approaching and may arrive well before society has sufficient time to either debate its broad implications or prepare for its full impact. . .”

“Forced to compete with automation on the one hand and a global labor pool on the other, American workers find themselves squeezed ever closer to the margins of economic survival.”

I strongly suspect President Obama has already read The End of Work, because he is focusing with laser-like intensity on the need for major CHANGE. Those in the electorate who do not take seriously the need for change should ponder Mr. Rifkin’s summary:

“On the eve of the third millennium, civilization finds itself precariously straddling two very different worlds, one utopian and full of promise, the other dystopian and rife with peril. At issue is the very concept of work itself. How does humanity begin to prepare for a future in which most formal work will have passed from human beings to machines? Our political institutions, social covenants, and economic relationships are based on human beings selling their labor as a commodity in the open marketplace.”

The End of Work has a subtitle, and it is: “The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era.” So far, I’ve focused on the decline of the labor force. But I think it will be equally important for President Obama and his economic team to focus on Mr. Rifkin’s vision of the “post-market era.”

The inauguration of President Obama this week brought to an end the long political “interregnum.” But we remain poised on the cusp of an historic economic “interregnum,” to use Jon Taplin’s word.

The passing economic system was labor and capital producing goods and services in a world dominated by nation-states. In the dawning economic system, workers “become expendable, then irrelevant, and finally invisible in the new high-tech world of global commerce and trade.”

Mr. Rifkin believes that “the opportunity exists to harness the unused labor of millions of people toward constructive tasks outside the private and public sectors.” This is where it gets tricky. We have had much debate about a massive job-creation program of government spending on “shovel-ready” infrastructure programs. Such a jobs program probably is a necessary short-term answer.

But Mr. Rifkin believes that neither the private market nor the public government will be able to fill the void. Mr. Rifkin believes that the solution will be found in what he calls “the third sector, the independent or volunteer sector.”

“Community service is a revolutionary alternative to traditional forms of labor. Unlike slavery, serfdom, and wage labor, it is neither coerced nor reduced to a fiduciary relationship. Community service is a helping action, a reaching out to others. It is an act entered into willingly and often without expectation of material gain. In this sense, it is more akin to the ancient economics of gift giving.”

This is change that many Americans would welcome. The alternative is frightening. Mr. Rifkin writes (and I have added boldface type for emphasis):

“If massive unemployment of a kind unknown in history were to occur as a result of the sweeping replacement of machines for human labor, then the chances of developing a compassionate and caring society and a world view based on transformation of the human spirit are unlikely. The more likely course would be widespread social upheaval, violence on an unprecedented scale, and open warfare, with the poor lashing out at each other as well as at the rich elites who control the global economy. If, instead, an enlightened course is pursued, allowing workers to benefit from increases in productivity with shorter workweeks and adequate income, more leisure time will exist than in any other period of modern history. That free time could be used to renew the bonds of community and rejuvenate the democratic legacy. A new generation might transcend the narrow limits of nationalism and begin to think and act as common members of the human race, with shared commitments to each other, the community, and the larger biosphere.”

Whew! Idealistic, for sure. Utopian, even. Change we can believe in. President Obama, please call Jeremy Rifkin. Or at least make sure your economic advisers read his book! –– Bernie Hayden