Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The End of Work

The End of Work has been rocking my world this week. It's a great introduction to the history of work, especially the effects of the industrial revolution and the Depression on average working people. But Rifkin is also a futurist, predicting that technology will displace most of the global labour force in the coming decades. As production rises with fewer workers required, the trend seems pretty clear. Some of it seems a bit overwrought, and in the nine years since the book was published, the predicted collapse of the demand for workers hasn't really materialized.

He did offer a short update in 2000 -- The End of Work — Five Years Later -- but it doesn't really offer any further insight. He reiterates the spectre of rising consumer debt as the primary mechanism propping up the economy in the U.S., which is probably somewhat true. If everyone is borrowing to support higher standards of living, there will likely be an eventual breaking point where families are just one lay-off away from financial ruin.

One thing that did ring true in his analysis was the growing split between what used to be called white-collar and blue-collar work. Much of the recent employment growth in North America has been in low-paying, often part-time jobs with little opportunity for advancement or personal fulfillment. Meanwhile, middle-class parents are pushing their kids into colleges and universities so they can compete for a dwindling pool of "good jobs" in finance, law, medicine, entertainment, design, etc. If even some of what Rifkin predicts comes true, most of those students will emerge from college with their degree, at least $20,000 debt and limited job prospects.

I was also reminded of the ongoing discussion about the outsourcing of white-collar jobs to countries like India. If North American companies were already shedding middle managers and low-level jobs (through the use of new labour-saving technology, re-engineering and downsizing), and then they also export most of their production (software, data, infrastructure), which jobs remain? You could be left with a polarized organization lacking the mid-level middle-class postions: an elite group of executives, strategists and designers who make the decisions, and low-paying front-line workers doing customer service, shipping, and the remaining administrative work.

Rifkin seems to discount the trend toward free agency in work -- it's as if he assumes that all consultants, small-scale entrepreneurs, freelancers, and contract workers would always prefer full-time work with one company for years. I don't think this is the case. In an age of unjobbing, people will have to take more responsibility for creating their own opportunities for paid work, and many will embrace this process as an essential part of lifestylism. Their work will be a single cog in the system of their whole lifestyle, potentially fitting in better than any nine-to-fiver ever could.

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