The Future of Work
Rethinking Employment in the 21st Century
Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The End of Work, the international bestseller that has been translated into sixteen languages. The book is widely credited with helping shape the current global debate on technology displacement, corporate downsizing, outsourcing, global labor mobility, and the future of jobs.
Mr. Rifkin's presentation will focus on the vast changes taking place in the nature of employment, as the world makes the shift from mass wage labor to small, highly educated, elite workforces, working side by side with increasingly intelligent, cheap and efficient automated technologies. We are entering a new phase in history - one characterized by the steady and inevitable decline of jobs. Just as the steam engine replaced slave labor in the 19th century, the new intelligent technologies of the IT, biotech, and nanotechnology revolutions are fast replacing mass wage labor in the 21st century. Worldwide unemployment is now at the highest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The number of people underemployed or without work is rising sharply as millions of new entrants into the workforce find themselves marginalized by an extraordinary high-technology revolution. Sophisticated computers, robotics, telecommunications, and other cutting-edge technologies are fast replacing human beings in virtually every sector and industry. In the past seven years alone, 14% of all the manufacturing jobs in the world have disappeared, as more and more human labor has been replaced with intelligent, automated technology. Similar technology displacement is occurring in the white collar and service industries.
Many jobs are never coming back. Blue collar workers, secretaries, receptionists, clerical workers, sales clerks, bank tellers, telephone operators, librarians, wholesalers, and middle managers are just a few of the many occupations destined for virtual extinction. While some new jobs are being created, they are, for the most part, either highly conceptual, knowledge-based and boutique, or low paying, and generally temporary in duration. The world is fast polarizing into two potentially irreconcilable forces: on one side, an information elite that controls and manages the high-tech global economy; and on the other, the growing numbers of underemployed or permanently displaced workers, who have few prospects and little hope for meaningful employment in an increasingly automated world.
We need to move beyond the delusion of retraining for a dwindling number of mass wage labor jobs, and begin to ponder the unthinkable - to prepare ourselves and our institutions for a world that is phasing out mass employment in the production and marketing of goods and services. Redefining the role of the individual in a near workerless society is likely to be the most pressing issue in the decades to come.
Fresh alternatives to formal work will need to be devised. New approaches to providing income and purchasing power will have to be implemented. Greater reliance will need to be placed on creating new employment opportunities in the emerging "third sector", or civil society.
The end of mass wage labor could lead to unprecedented social upheaval, or signal the beginning of a great social transformation and rebirth of the human spirit.
The End of Work
The Boston Globe, "Where to find work in the future", August 22 1996
New York Times, "Watch Out For Trickle-Down Technology", February 24, 1993
The Guardian, "Return of a conundrum", March 2, 2004
Federal Chancellery of Germany & Christian Democratic Union
AFL-CIO — American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations
Federal Chamber of Labour of Austria