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The Decline of the Global Labor Force

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The End of Work, talks to RFID Journal about RFID's impact on jobs.
By Bob Violino
Oct 01, 2004—Few authors have caused as big a stir on the labor front as Jeremy Rifkin, author of the best-selling book The End of Work (Putnam, 1995). The economist and social activist, who is now president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., predicted that modern technology and
Jeremy Rifkin
automation have the potential to cause massive unemployment and social problems. In a recent interview with RFID Journal, Rifkin says that RFID is part of an ongoing trend that benefits the corporate elite and pockets of knowledge workers but wreaks havoc with the ever-shrinking middle class.

RFID Journal: Do you still believe that technology and automation will lead to a steady decline in jobs?
Rifkin: The time frame I laid out was a bit conservative. We’re moving toward the end of work at a much quicker clip than I predicted. We increasingly see human labor replaced by intelligent technology. It’s no longer just repetitive tasks; machines are able to handle far more complicated tasks.

RFID Journal: How will this play out in the coming years?
Rifkin: The cheapest worker in the world will not be as cheap as the intelligent technology that can replace him in the 21st century. About 11 percent of worldwide manufacturing jobs have disappeared over the past seven years. Despite a perception that China is taking jobs from other countries, including the United States, China has lost about 15 percent of its manufacturing jobs. By the middle of the 21st century, less than 1 percent of the world’s workforce will be in what is defined as a traditional blue-collar job. We are already well on our way to workerless factories.

RFID Journal: Will automation impact other jobs?
Rifkin: Losses will not be limited to blue-collar jobs. Many service industries—including banking, insurance, retail, accounting and law—will be impacted. Already, we have software that can do what an average accountant did 10 years ago. We have applications that can do what a typical lawyer did five years ago. The bottom line is software, biotechnology, robotics and nanotechnology will end mass wage labor just as the industrial age ended slave labor.

RFID Journal: Are we creating new jobs at the higher end of the spectrum?
Rifkin: Yes, but they are boutique. Politicians will say that all we have to do is eliminate a mismatch in jobs and skills. They argue that we need to reeducate the existing workforce and train students who are going to be part of the future workforce. The problem is that we will create all sorts of job categories we cannot even imagine today. In addition, many jobs will require the best and the brightest—not average lawyers, architects and engineers.

RFID Journal: What are the social implications?
Rifkin: They’re enormous. One could see this as a disaster in the making, because our entire social and political structure is based on labor. If people aren’t earning money, then all the productivity gains are useless. The entire system could collapse. On the other hand, it could be considered a great potential success story for modern capitalism and high technology. We’d have to reimagine what human beings do when we no longer need them in the workplace. We have to examine their intrinsic value and what they can contribute to the world.

RFID Journal: How might the latter scenario play out?
Rifkin: We could focus on social capital and philanthropy. Through tax shifting—levying taxes on those who engage in negative activities, such as wasting energy or polluting, and reducing payroll taxes for those who engage in positive activities—we could begin to formulate a viable economy. This might sound utopian, but some European countries have already begun to adopt this approach.

RFID Journal: Can the tremendous push for ever greater efficiency and productivity continue unabated?
Rifkin: Probably not. It’s ironic that in an era of the greatest technology revolution in world history, the employed are working longer hours and feeling more stressed than ever. We ought to be going to a 25- to 30-hour workweek. We need to reexamine what we are trying to accomplish as a society.
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