In 'The End of Work,' author envisions an expanded role for Third Sector

NONPROFITS INC.

April 24, 1995|By LESTER A. PICKER

Jeremy Rifkin is a visionary. Jeremy Rifkin is a left-wing, liberal fool. Take your pick.

Few people in our country tend to polarize the political spectrum as does Jeremy Rifkin. With his newest book, "The End of Work," on nonfiction best-seller lists, Rifkin seems to be popping up in every medium I tune into.

Two weeks ago, he made an appearance on Baltimore's equivalent of a community forum, WJHU's Mark Steiner Show. I've also heard him recently on National Public Radio and seen him on public television.

For anyone involved in nonprofit work, as a staff member or a volunteer, Rifkin's book is a must-read, a recommendation I don't make lightly since, in some ways, it is not an easy read. The book is nearly three hundred pages and is laced with economic pearls from such entertainment giants as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. Notes and bibliography take up another 43 pages.

On the other hand, I've got to say that Rifkin manages to make the numbers comprehensible. Unfortunately, as I began to comprehend them, I felt a creeping anxiety developing.

I'm reluctant to summarize the book, since there are many sub-concepts and threads that are critical to his treatise. But, in the main, what Rifkin is saying is that we have entered a 'post-market era,' a time in which employment is at its lowest level in history; a time when market forces are synergistically combining to create joblessness at unprecedented levels.

However, unlike rosy-eyed politicians, whom he faults for their naivete, Rifkin believes that these lost jobs, particularly in manufacturing, will never come back. He says that we are fooling ourselves if we believe otherwise, and documents his case with statistics from an amazingly broad range of arenas.

Rifkin believes that the high-tech revolution is far more insidious and ultimately damaging to the blue-collar work force than we have allowed ourselves to believe. In virtually every industrial sector, cutting-edge technologies such as robotics and computers combined with new management techniques are displacing workers permanently. Increasingly rare commodities will be middle managers, secretaries, blue-collar workers, bank tellers and others directly effected by technology. New jobs that are being created are generally low-paying and temporary.

This has created a polarized society, according to Rifkin, between those who control the high-tech flow of information and jobs, and those who are permanently displaced.

Rifkin takes on the politicians by strongly suggesting that we abandon the hype of retraining for nonexistent jobs. Instead, he suggests we prepare for the post-market era which will be characterized, in part, by the emergence of a strong nonprofit sector. Rifkin uses the popular term, Third Sector, to describe the nonprofit world.

According to Rifkin, the Third Sector will be critical in preparing masses of former workers to be gainfully employed in helping their fellow human beings, in restoring decaying communities and in solving the intractable community problems we now have. He sees our society at a crossroads, where the emergence of a strong nonprofit community could help build a sustainable culture of helping.

Rifkin's book has been faulted by those who challenge his economic and employment assumptions, as well as by those who wonder how he proposes to pay for this massive shift to Third Sector employment. Rifkin suggests his programs be paid for by a significant reorganization of welfare, reducing costly government subsidies to corporations, further cutting defense programs and by instituting a value-added tax.

If Rifkin is even partially correct, then we will continue to witness massive unemployment, social unrest and community deterioration, not a very positive prospect. At the very least, Third Sector leaders should thoughtfully and carefully read "The End to Work" and ask themselves hard questions about how prepared they are to deal with even some of the future as painted by Rifkin.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202; (410) 783-5100

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