Analysis of The End of Work By Jeremy Rifkin – Part 1: The Two Faces of Technology

It has been well over two decades since Jeremy Rifkin wrote The End of Work. In this book, he explores the concepts of automation, corporate downsizing, and job losses associated therein. He theorizes that the technology which helped with modern industrialization will actually lead to the downfall of the world’s current workforce. Since first publishing the book in 1996, many of Rifkin’s theories have proven to have a substantial amount of merit, but not without challenge from other theorists. He is “credited by some with helping shape the current global debate” surrounding these issues. (2019) For the purpose of this analysis, I am going to review the key points from Part 1: The Two Faces of Technology.

The End of Work

In this section, Rifkin discusses the concepts of substituting software for employees, re-engineering, and a world without workers. According to Rifkin, “the new computer-based technologies promise a replacement of the human mind,” “re-engineering could eliminate between 1 million and 2.5 million jobs a year,” which leads to “worry about where the new high-technology revolution is leading us.” (Rifkin, 1995) While Rifkin still stands by his assessment today, there are some who agree with him and there are those who challenge this way of thinking. David Rotman, editor for The MIT Technology Review, conducted research on the effects of automation and he discovered information which coincides with Rifkin’s take on the topic and information which contests his beliefs. Dr. Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, believes “rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster that it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth on inequality in the United States.” (Rotman & Rotman, 2016) Another of Rotman’s colleagues, David Autor, an economist at MIT, provides information that points to a “sluggish economy” as the culprit for the sudden slow down in job creation.” (Rotman & Rotman, 2016)

(To read the full article, click here.)

Trickle-down Technology and Market Realities

Here, Rifkin tackles such topics as mass consumption, the post-war world, and the shrinking public sector. Rifkin argues that the “new labor saving technologies,” of the roaring 20s actually led to the great depression of the early 1930s, when the unemployment rate jumped from less than one million to 15 million, at its peak. (Rifkin, 1995) He goes on to point out, in the past, “new products—especially television and consumer electronics—helped cushion the blow and provide jobs for workers displaced by machines in other industries,” but, he believes this is a thing of the past as “the new economic realities… make it far less likely that either the marketplace or public sector will once again be able to rescue the economy from increasing technological employment and weakened consumer demand.” (Rifkin, 1995) Melanie Swan, of the Perdue University Philosophy Department, disputes such claims. She concludes the issue is not technological employment itself, rather, “The problem is that those who become unemployed by technology are not being reabsorbed or planned for comprehensively in today’s society.” (Swan, 2017) In essence, this means that we could technically avoid this phenomenon by strategically planning ahead. Even though it seems Swan could be oversimplifying a solution, it does make some sense in the bigger picture of things.

(To read the full article, click here.)

Visions of Techno-Paradise

To wrap up Part I,  we are given a overview of how the field of engineering changed the scope of the American landscape, from the invention of electricity in the late 1800s, to the launching of the Russian space satellite in the 1950s. These were, indeed, exciting times in history. Still, Rifkin believes those great historical feats, and the ones that followed, “hold out the long-anticipated promise of a nearly workless world…” (Rifkin, 1995) Mark Paul, a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, argues that automation is not the end of the world. He reckons that, although “technological change has the potential to create job loss in the short term,” “job gains from technology often outpace the losses over time and allow workers to focus on better, high-productivity jobs.” (Paul, n. d.)

(To read the full article, click here.)

Conclusion

Clearly, Rifkin’s theories are open to interpretation and argument. While researching automation, I found many pros and cons. There seems to be as many proponents as there are opponents. I will leave you with this question to ponder: Who is right?

Resources

Jeremy Rifkin. (2019, January 17). Retrieved February 3, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Jeremy_Rifkin

Paul, M. (n.d.). Don’t Fear the Robots. [online] Rooseveltinstitute.org. Available at:http://rooseveltinstitute .org/ wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Don%E2%80%99t-Fear-the-Robots.pdf [Accessed 3 Feb. 2019].

Rifkin, J. (1995). The end of work. 1st ed. New York, N.Y.: Putnam’s Sons.

Rotman, D., & Rotman, D. (2016, September 01). How Technology Is Destroying Jobs. Retrieved February3, 2019, from https://www.technologyreview.com/s/515926/how-technology-is-destroying-jobs/

Swan, M. (2017). s Technological Unemployment Real? An Assessment and a Plea for AbundanceEconomics. [online] https://www.researchgate.net. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315217034_Is_Technological_

Unemployment_Real_An_Assessment_and_a_Plea_for_Abundance_Economics [Accessed 3 Feb. 2019].

6 thoughts on “Analysis of The End of Work By Jeremy Rifkin – Part 1: The Two Faces of Technology

  1. Pretty interesting book you are reading. I would lean more towards Rifkin’s theories. I do believe that one day machines will replace people. Think about all the jobs a machine could do that humans are doing right now. Even in the Postal service they use to have jobs that people would do like sorting the mail by hand but now a machine does it. Mcdonalds, Burger King, and other fast food restaurants, as well as retailers will eventually only be ran by one person. Amazon now has a smart store that could potentially get rid of Wal-Mart completely which would lay at least 500 thousand people off. I dont know if our world will get as bad as Rifkin believes but I do think he might be right on a lot of his theories. Anyway I like your blog, and I kept interested the whole time reading, which means your writing can keep someone from being uninterested in the topic that you are writing about.

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  2. While reading your interesting blog I was thinking of the $15 per hour minimum wage and fast food. You can walk into many fast food joints today and walk up to a kiosk to order your meal. Simply insert a credit card, and there’s no interaction with a teller. Who needs them at $15/hour? This kiosk is killing off entry level jobs. I believe that I’d prefer that a human actually would make my burger at McDonald’s but in Asia that is not the case, at least not like here in the USA. Machines take your order, and machines make your order. At best you have a manager who becomes more technically knowledgeable with less need for a human resources person. Just ask Seattle if the mandated $15 minimum wage is working for that market? Raising costs of course forces the consumer cost to go up as well. I work in the lower level of pay industry, however I would NEVER pay my employees the state allowed $7.25 per hour. Many of my competitors do. Yes, their cost to the consumer is much less but I guarantee you that “you get what you pay for”…. and someday that may be robots doing everything for us.

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    1. I understand your concerns, and I agree that you get what you pay for. I suppose there is a con for every pro in this situation. I do feel like we have the ability to evolve , though. We have made it through every technological advancement in history.

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  3. This is a topic that excites some and scares others. Some people see the evolution of AI as a threat to humans by surpassing our own capabilities and forcing us into serving them. Others view the creation of more automation a way to remove lesser tasks and allow humans to focus and evolve with less distractions. What worries me the most is the economies of the world. New technologies bring new jobs, but the jobs are very different. Michael’s response regarding the kiosks at McDonald’s is something I have seen in Europe. The human staff is smaller and the kiosks take care of ordering. I will say the kiosks are not advanced enough yet to handle special/different orders very well, there are only a finite number of options allowed. However, I can see where this could be automated further and options increased. What happen’s to the staff when they are let go? Sure, now there is a job for ‘kiosk repair’ that someone can fill, but likely it won’t be an immediate move for existing employees. Training will be required that may take someone skilled in sales and customer service and ask them to develop technical/mechanical skills. Not everything will translate easily and some people will be left behind. We should not fear the change of the future, it will happen with or without us. What we need to define is how we will help people remain valued and able to contribute when change happens.

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