The Information Age and the Civil Society: An Interview with Jeremy Rifkin

By Slavin, Peter | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1996 | Go to article overview

The Information Age and the Civil Society: An Interview with Jeremy Rifkin


Slavin, Peter, Phi Delta Kappan


In this interview with Mr. Slavin, the author of The End of Work shares his views on what the current shift out of the Industrial Age and into the Information Age will mean for the work force, society, and the schools.

A Wharton School degree in hand, Jeremy Rifkin was headed for a business career when a stint as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer in the late 1960s drew him into the nonprofit realm. Since then, few authors have broken as much new ground as he. One of his books helped popularize the idea of worker-owned and -managed companies; another did the same for the notion of investing pension funds to do social good. A third explored the sense of time in society in the past and present.

Today Rifkin heads the Foundation on Economic Trends, a think tank in Washington, D.C. His latest book, The End of Work (Tarcher/Putnam, 1995), has attracted considerable attention. It follows several other works about technology, economic trends, culture, and the environment.

Slavin: You write in The End of Work that the technological revolution now under way is likely to cost millions of people their jobs and make them economically superfluous. What exactly is happening?

Rifkin: We are moving out of the Industrial Age into the Information Age. Sophisticated new technologies - computers, telecommunications, robots - are replacing entire job categories. Manufacturing is moving aggressively toward an automated future. We have near-worker-less factories on the horizon, and by the year 2020 we will see the virtual elimination of the blue-collar factory worker.

The service sector is also deeply affected by these technologies. Banking, finance, insurance, wholesale, and retail are all eliminating layer after layer of infrastructure and management. The goal is to flatten the old corporate pyramids and create "virtual companies" - consisting of a small entrepreneurial elite, a core professional staff, and a backup "just-in-time" work force.

What differentiates the Information Age from the Industrial Age is that in every sector we see a movement from mass labor, both blue- and white-collar, to elite, highly conceptual work forces, accompanied by increasingly sophisticated technologies to process goods and services. Even engineers, computer scientists, technicians, accountants, and other professionals - people in knowledge-sector jobs - will not be needed in mass numbers. Only the best will be employed. Intelligent machines and software will be able to do most garden-variety professional and technical work.

Some people argue that these job losses will be offset by new Information Age products and services that will, in turn, create many new jobs, just as the auto industry did when the horse and buggy became obsolete. Some new jobs will be created, but not enough to make up for the jobs lost. That's because in the Information Age, if you create a product with great market potential, you can manufacture it in a near-workerless factory and market it with a near-virtual company employing a small number of people.

Even if we could retrain everyone - and we can't because most of these jobs take years of education - fewer than 20% of the next generation is going to be needed in the knowledge sector. We are training children for cyberspace and computer literacy, but most won't be needed in an increasingly automated global marketplace. Look at how many unemployed Ph.D.s, engineers, and other professionals we already have. The next generation is going to be very disillusioned.

Slavin: So what kind of society are we headed for?

Rifkin: What we're looking at in every country is the creation of a two-tiered society - haves and have-nots. The top 20%, the knowledge workers, are growing increasingly affluent. They're part of the global electronic village and identify more with their virtual address than with their geographic address. They are a new cosmopolitan elite. …

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