The end of work
Article by Media Hell's Brian Dean
previously printed in In Business magazine
See also: The
future of work as previously predicted >
The workerless society may be much closer than
we think. 75% of the work force, in most developed countries,
engage in work that is little more than simple repetitive
tasks. Most of these jobs are vulnerable to replacement by
automation. But that’s not all technology is increasingly
taking over tasks previously thought to require human intelligence.
Office workers and managers are now under threat as corporations
restructure to take advantage of the huge productivity gains
made possible by the new technologies.
Economists have traditionally argued against
the likelihood of the decline of work, believing that productivity
gains produce wealth, which is used to expand markets, thereby
creating new jobs. Admittedly, this has been the case in the
past. For example, when technology began to displace agricultural
workers, a new growing sector manufacturing
was able to absorb those displaced. Then, between the mid
fifties and the early eighties, as manufacturing became increasingly
automated, displaced factory workers were absorbed into the
growing service sector (banking, insurance, accounting, law,
airlines, retail, etc). In most modern cities today, nine
out of ten jobs are in the service sector.
As we approach the millennium, however, service
sector jobs are increasingly falling to advanced technology
without the emergence of any new growth areas of the
scale required to absorb the redundant office workers. It
has been estimated, for example, that human secretaries currently
spend more than 45% of their time filing papers, photocopying,
delivering messages, posting letters and waiting for assignments.
Electronic office systems make all of this redundant.
Sophisticated labour-saving technology is being
developed at an accelerating rate. Hundreds of companies now
use computer systems to screen job applications. One such
system, called Resumix, optically scans incoming CVs, reads
and evaluates the applicants’ details, and makes decisions
concerning applicant suitability (field tests have shown the
Resumix to be as skilled as human personnel managers in evaluating
Speech recognition software is already being
used to replace human customer service telephonists in many
companies. These companies face a simple choice: use the new
technology or lose competitive advantage and go out of business.
In either case job losses will occur.
In 1993 the US retail giant, Sears, cut 50,000
jobs from its merchandising division. That same year, its
sales revenues rose by 10%. General Electric, a world leader
in electronic manufacturing, reduced its global workforce
from 400,000 in 1981 to 230,000 in 1993, whilst tripling its
sales. The tyre company, Goodyear, cut 24,000 jobs between
1988 and 1992, and increased productivity by 30% in the same
period. During the writing of this article, Electrolux announced
they would be eliminating 12,000 jobs over the next two years.
Large layoffs such as these are becoming increasingly common
as the electronic revolution forces corporations to ruthlessly
restructure in order to stay competitive.
The technological revolution which
brought this wealth should be seen as a social phenomenon
it was not created by any one individual or group; neither is
it a creature solely of the marketplace it rightly ‘belongs’
According to renowned management expert, Professor
Charles Handy, we are losing more jobs than we can replace.
This is inevitable, he says, because developed countries can’t
sustain the level of growth needed to create sufficient jobs
to replace those lost through technologically enhanced productivity.
Automation is shedding jobs faster than markets can expand
to create new jobs. Handy remarks that we all need the equivalent
of an earthquake to remind us to take nothing for granted
in the world of work and economics.
Another economic commentator who believes we
need a shock to awaken us, is Jeremy Rifkin, president of
the Foundation on Economic Trends, in Washington, DC. According
to Rifkin, “not a single world leader seems willing to entertain
the possibility that the global economy is moving inexorably
toward a shrinking labour market with potentially profound
consequences for civilisation”. He criticises the logic behind
‘trickle-down technology’ the theory, held by most
conventional economists, which says that advances in technology
and productivity create falling prices, generating greater
demand, and thus leading to the creation of more jobs than
In his book, The End of Work, Rifkin presents
evidence showing the steady rise of unemployment in most developed
nations: “With demand seriously weakened by rising unemployment
and underemployment in most of the industrial world, the business
community has turned to extending easy consumer credit in
an effort to stimulate purchasing power.” (See also Rifkin’s
Consumer debt has rocketed to alarmingly high
levels in both the US and the UK, coinciding with increasing
losses of full-time jobs. Unemployment has doubled in Britain
since 1979, and the vast majority of new jobs created have
been temporary or part-time (since 1992, 90% of jobs created
have been temporary or part-time). One of the most notable
growth areas during this period has been the credit card companies,
which have experienced phenomenal success.
The economic rewards
derived from technology will need to be distributed to people
in ways that have nothing to do with the amount of work, if
any, they perform.
Technological advances continue to have the effect
of reducing the commodity value of human labour. Economic
rewards have traditionally been distributed on the basis of
contributions to production (at least in theory). As human
contributions to production reduce in significance and quantity,
relative to automated contributions, employment wages will
become inadequate to live on. This is already occurring
most reports of the last few years indicate that the low-paid
are becoming financially worse off.
Every technological advance implemented in industry
effectively increases wealth - otherwise it wouldn’t be utilised.
Wealth is piling up all around us. The technological revolution
which brought this wealth should be seen as a social phenomenon
it was not created by any one individual or group;
neither is it a creature solely of the marketplace
it rightly ‘belongs’ to everyone.
In a world of decreasing demand for human labour,
the economic rewards derived from technology will need to
be distributed to people in ways that have nothing to do with
the amount of work, if any, they perform.
(Acknowledgement: this article uses data from
the book The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin).