Individuals tend to develop a false sense of security concerning the certainty of their jobs. After working for an organization for fifteen or more years, it is difficult for them to understand that their employers may no longer need their service. Jeremy Rifkin wrote The End of Work in order to warn people about what he foresees may be happening to the global labour force because of a rapid increase in the use of automation in the workplace. He identifies what he believes are causes of the problems which we are currently facing within the organizational structure along with some potential solutions. Rifkin’s ideas may be relevant to most people’s lives including ours. The reactions of six currently employed persons to Rifkin’s message will be included in this text. These professionals include a technical manager, a convenience store owner, and a cashier for Marriot food services, a Residence-Life Staff Coordinator, a Part-Time Credit Card Service Assistant and an Assembler for an Electrical Switch-Gear Manufacturing Company.
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Rifkin observes that the main problem of mass global employment in both the private and public sectors is caused by the continuing advances in technology and it’s impacts on organizations, it’s structure and design and it’s direct effect on the global labour force. In particular, organizations are using the concept of re-engineering and replacing human labour with labour saving technologies. Rifkin gives us a better understanding of the development of the cause of this problem by examining the three industrial revolutions. In the first industrial revolution, Rifkin identifies steam power as the major tool used by industrial and manufacturing sectors. In the second industrial revolutions the electrical innovation effected the manufacturing, agricultural and transport industries by further reducing the global labour force.
Unlike the past, two industrial revolutions where industrial technologies replace the physical power of human labor, the third revolution (The Information Age), at present, is contributing new computer based technology which are involving into thinking machines. These thinking machines will evolve to the extent that eventual the human mind will be replaced in all economic activities. In particular, advancements in computer technology including parallel processing and artificial intelligence (robots) are going to cause a large number of white collar workers to be redundant in the near future. Furthermore as a result of advancement in the information and telecommunications technologies, organizations are using the concept of re-engineering to restructure their organizations to make them more computer friendly. As a direct result of this, training employees in multi-level skills, shortening and simplifying production and distribution processes and streamlining administration. One example of this is the global auto industry which is reengineering it’s operation and investing in new labour displacing information technology, related industries are doing the same, eliminating more and more jobs in the process.
It is Rifkin’s belief that it is technology that is taking jobs away from people. He includes many statistics concerning job loss, unemployment and how much organizations are benefitting from all this, he states that “more than 75 percent of the labor force in most industrial nations engage in work that is little more than simple repetitive tasks. Automated machinery, robots and increasingly sophisticated computers can perform many if not most of these jobs… in the years ahead more than 90 million jobs in a labor force of 124 million are potentially vulnerable to replacement by machines.” (Rifkin p.5). He shows us that this global unemployment effects those who are in agriculture industry, “nearly half the human beings on the planet still farm and land. Now, however, new breakthroughs in the information and life sciences threaten to end much of outdoor farming by the middle decades of the coming century.” (Rifkin p.109). Just to show us how widespread this problem is, he includes information concerning the downfall of those who work in the service industry “computers that can understand speech, read script, and perform tasks previously carried out by human beings foreshadow a new era in which service industries come increasingly under the domain of automation.” (Rifkin p. 143).
Rifkin does, however have a few solutions to this dilemma. The first of which demonstrates a 30-hour work week because “the information and communication technology revolutions virtually guarantee more production with less human labor… Free time will come, William Green said, the only choice is unemployment or leisure.” (Rifkin p.222). There are already organizations which have implemented this 30-hour week, with great success. Employees must take a small pay cut, but they remain employed and only have to work 75 percent of their previous time. This solution allows for more people to be employed, while giving those employed a larger amount of free time. Part of what Rifkin says is that this free time should be spent volunteering for different causes such as child care institutions, hospitals, churches and neighborhood group activities.
Rifkin suggests that the government should encourage this advancement of the third sector (eg. volunteers, non-profit organizations) by offering a “shadow wage, in the form of a deduction on personal income taxes for volunteer hours given.” (Rifkin p.257). It has also been suggested that the government issue a minimum social annual income so that non-profit organizations’ employees get an actual salary, this would eliminate welfare and because people are devoting so much of their free time, it would allow the government to cut spending on public works projects such as building low-income housing and city-wide clean up projects (New York). The saved money would allow for the minimum income earners to collect.
Meanwhile, it has been suggested that a tax be put on all non-essential goods and services as a source of government revenue. This shows us that the government would play a smaller role in society as communities would begin to become self-contained, also, huge cutbacks on national defense would add to the government’s budgets as employers. All these solutions would eventually be put forth worldwide as automation takes over many positions in most organizations.
One of the most important questions we ask ourselves while reading this book is “how does this affect our lives?” Well, there are a few parameters to be taken in to consideration. First of all, is all of what Rifkin is suggesting true? We have come to the conclusion that he may be partially right. We see what he is suggesting (automation) happening all around us. For example, car washes, direct payment by the use of our bank card and different machinery upgrades at work. We feel that our future professions (lawyer, engineer and financial analyst) will not be compromised by technological advancements because we are going to be a part of what Rifkin refers to as the “knowledge sector.” Knowledge sector refers to those occupations which require further post secondary education in the technology sector rather than manual type labour. On the other hand, technology will aid us in our job performance, which includes the efficiency and quality of our services. Information is now literally at our fingertips, in the past, huge libraries containing volumes of books were required for many different professions, these libraries have not disappeared, but computers the size of a regular binder can hold just as much information. This would facilitate research for many of those who will work, like us, in the “Knowledge Sector.”
Current technological advancements may or may not affect the daily lives of many individuals; six such individuals were interviewed for their responses to Rifkin’s message. Monique van den Wildenberg, the residence life coordinator with the Residence Life staff (which is part of Carleton University Housing and Food services), states that her work does involved technology, but, not a sophisticated level compared to other jobs such as the automotive industry. She feels she is adequately knowledgeable about technology to make her job easier ( i.e. Making posters and communicating with colleagues) but is not afraid that technology will make her obsolete since her job is person to person job and no computer or robot is able to replace the uniqueness of human communication and contact. On the other hand, Wildenberg believes that technology has a potential to create large percentage of unemployed individuals in the future, but, it is up to the individual not the government too continuously learn and retrain so they do not become outdated by technology.
Mike Marriot working for Marriot food services does feel frustrated with new technology introduced even though it has made his job easier and richer. He knows that his organization could have spent half million dollars too implemented a technology that would have eliminated his current duties. Furthermore, Marriot believes that Rifkin has some substance in this ideology that technology will create a higher unemployment rate, but, it is up to the individual and the organization to re-train, understand and cope with technology advancement. “Technology is only as good as the people who are using it” says Mike Marriot.
The relevance of Rifkin’s main message and the expressed opinions of the following two currently employed workers was found to be inconclusive. The third person interviewed, currently, works as an assembler for a electrical switchgear manufacturing company, a blue collar job. About a year and a half ago his previous employer laid him off due to company downsizing. The position that he held in that company was a management position. Specifically, he was a manager for the assembly section of the high voltage switchgear division. He had held the position for about seven years and he had been with the company for about nineteen years in total. The result of his lay off from the company was not really the direct result of technology but other factors. These factors included the low demand for the product (high voltage switchgears and transformers), the relatively high cost of producing the product (in comparison to their competitors in the US) due to the relatively large size of the organization. The particular manufacturing plant that he had been working in was one of many branch plants. In fact, the company had manufacturing plants in the US and Europe and was planning to shut down the operations of this particular plant in Toronto due to the shrinking market in that region. The plan also included for the US branch plant to pick up the “slack” of the Toronto or Ontario market. In general, this interviewee agrees with some of the relevant points with respect to the unemployment issues that Rifkin points out but has not experienced any negative aspects of technology. That is, he relates to the increased competition and company re-engineering that Rifkin mentions about in his book.
The fourth person interviewed is a part-time credit card service assistant. He has been working for the organization for about 5 years and he attends university as a full-time student. In the company that he has been working for he has not experienced any negative impacts of technology or re-engineering in the organization. As a result he does not relate to Rifkin’s pessimistic view on technology. He does on the other hand agree on Rifkin’s message on obtaining more knowledge in the high tech areas. This is one of the reasons why he attends university so that he can gain more knowledge in computers and keep up to date with the latest in technology.
When a telecommunications technician was informed about Rifkin’s message concerning global automation and a huge increase in unemployment, the response given was one of no fear. Tony Deluca of Mitec Telecom., who is manager of the test department, said that he had no worries because his work simply can’t be done by a machine. It is clear to all those who have seen firsthand what exactly is involved in testing telecommunications equipment that Tony doesn’t have to worry. He assembles a component to many different computers and makes the finest adjustments so that all runs at the proper frequency and can withstand all power put through it. The changes that are required can only be performed by skilled professionals and therefore Mr. Deluca feels that his employment for Mitec is not at risk.
The last person interviewed is a man by the name of Robyn Decoste, he is a small business owner in a suburb of Montreal. It is because he owns the store that he has no fear of losing all to automation. Although what he takes into consideration is that the mechanization of his store will make work for his children (he plans to give the store to them) far more simple. Paperwork, and trips to the bank will soon be non-existent. Also, he foresees automation aiding him in a sense that he may need to employ less people in the future. Currently, he employs people to do various tasks, from stocking shelves to banking and those who work the register. It is known that soon enough he will no longer need a person at the cash register, since automated billing and paying procedures are currently being perfected, yet to acquire the best baking results and to keep the shelves full, he must employ a small number of people.
Rifkin attempts to throw the world into a state of shock with his book. The End of Work is to us informative, however, it should not be read as a bible. Using many examples taken from the past and present, Rifkin demonstrated what he believes are the main factors which are hurling us towards an unemployed global population. We all hold a more optimistic view of what automation will accomplish in our society. From those interviewed, we have come to the conclusion that the world as a whole also has a quite optimistic view of what technology can do for us.
Rifkin J. The End of Work, (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Son’s, 1996).