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Will the Future Be One Long Coffee Break? : THE END OF WORK: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, By Jeremy Rifkin (Tarcher/Putnam: $24.95; 368 pp.)

March 12, 1995|James Flanigan | Flanigan is a Times business columnist

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In "The Iceman Cometh," the anarchist character Hugo Kalmar cries out that once the revolution comes, "we will eat hot dogs and drink free beer beneath the willow trees."

Well, the technological revolution has come. Everywhere, computers and other electronic machines are enhancing human capabilities, making work more productive and eliminating heavy lifting. Yet this book argues there will be no free beer, that the computer's advance and changing work patterns mean only poverty and misery for masses of unemployed workers.

"The End of Work" is a flawed book, full of rhetorical statistics and misleading arguments. But it's worth considering because it addresses a question that has aroused widespread anxiety: Will advancing technology bring good jobs and decent pay for all workers, or only for a skilled elite, leaving most behind in idleness and poverty? And how do we go about ensuring the former virtuous state?

Jeremy Rifkin's extremely gloomy--and incorrect--answer is that the central government will have to support a vast sector of social work because jobs will disappear. "While earlier industrial technologies replaced the physical power of human labor, substituting machines for body and brawn, the new computer-based technologies promise a replacement of the human mind itself," Rifkin writes.

The vision throughout is of the computer as threat. Nowhere does the book even acknowledge Steve Jobs' expansive vision. "As the bicycle augmented human muscle power," the co-founder of Apple Computer used to say, "so the computer will augment brain power, allowing thought to fly."

Fly indeed! Rifkin, a prolific writer of economics books such as "Beyond Beef," sees the "substitution of thinking machines for human beings" threatening 90 million jobs in a work force of 128 million. If the Great Depression put "one third of a nation" out of work, Rifkin's version of the Information Age will idle 70% of the work force.

Such projections are nonsense--as is clear even today. The U.S. economy has adapted the computer more than any other nation, from the large mainframe 30 years ago to the spread of the personal computer in the last decade. And as it has, employment has expanded greatly.

Yes, there is unemployment, 7 million people out of work at any one time, 5.7% of the work force. That's a problem--and part of a much larger social problem--to be solved.

But to blame unemployment on technology is misplaced. In Europe, where France, Germany and other nations have been slow to adopt the computer, unemployment runs 10% to 11%; in Japan, which has been equally slow to computerize, unemployment--adjusting for differences in accounting--is comparable to that of the U.S. And Japan has not brought women into its labor force at anything like the U.S. rate.

Where are the new jobs? Almost everywhere. Airline employment has risen 63% since deregulation 16 years ago. Business services is a vast field today, covering everything from accounting and finance to the local Kinko's.

Then there is the enormous work force of the computer and electronics industries themselves, directly employing 4 million in the U.S. and indirectly accounting for an explosion in different kinds of jobs in millions of new companies. Rifkin scarcely acknowledges this reality.

New jobs come about because productivity is increasing--that is, greater output for the same investment of labor or money or time. Throughout history, rising productivity has made the pie bigger for all, the most dramatic example in the 10th Century when there was an increase in farm productivity in Europe, leading to a general upsurge in learning and growth.

Productivity is now growing in the U.S. economy, as computers reform office work and service businesses, the way they earlier transformed manufacturing. The result is 2% to 3% annual growth in productivity--meaning that $120 billion to $180 billion is added to the economy each year for the same amount of labor and investment. You can make a lot of jobs with an extra $120 billion.

But Rifkin massively misunderstands rising productivity. To him it means more profits for the villains of his piece, whom he calls "transnational corporations" or simply "corporations" or "business leaders." These straw malefactors, according to Rifkin, use technology to make workers "redundant and irrelevant in the global economy." His gloomy analysis recalls the story of the late Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers' leader, looking over an assembly line.

"Someday machines will put those cars together," Ford says to the union leader.

"How many cars will the machines buy, Henry?" responds Reuther.

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