'Will There be a Job for Me in the New Information Age?'

September 04, 1995|By JEREMY RIFKIN

This is the question that most worries American voters -- and the question that American politicians seem most determined to sidestep. President Clinton warns workers that they will have to be retrained six or seven times during their work lives to match the dizzying speed of technological change. Speaker Newt Gingrich talks about the ''end of the traditional job'' and advises every American worker to become his or her own independent contractor.

But does the president really think 124 million Americans can reinvent themselves every five years to keep up with a high-tech marketplace? Does Mr. Gingrich honestly believe every American can become a free-lance entrepreneur, continually hustling contracts for short-term work assignments?

Buffeted by these unrealistic employment expectations, American workers are increasingly sullen and pessimistic. While corporate profits are heading through the roof, average families struggle to keep a roof over their heads. More than one-fifth of the work force is trapped in temporary assignments or works only part-time. Millions of others have slipped quietly out of the economy and into an underclass no longer counted in the permanent employment figures. A staggering 15 percent of the population now lives below the official poverty line.

Messrs. Clinton and Gingrich have asked American workers to remain patient. They explain that declining incomes represent only short-term adjustments. Democrats and Republicans alike beseech the faithful to place their trust in the high-tech future -- to journey with them into cyberspace and become pioneers on the new electronic frontier. Their enthusiasm for technological marvels has an almost camp ring to it. If you didn't know better, you might suspect Mickey and Pluto were taking you on a guided tour through the Epcot Center.

The hard reality is that the global economy is in the midst of a transformation as significant as the Industrial Revolution. We are in the early stages of a shift from ''mass labor'' to highly skilled ''elite labor,'' accompanied by increasing automation in the production of goods and the delivery of services.

Sophisticated computers, robots, telecommunications and other Information Age technologies are replacing human beings in nearly every sector. Factory workers, secretaries, receptionists, clerical workers, salesclerks, bank tellers, telephone operators, librarians, wholesalers and middle managers are just a few of the many occupations destined for virtual extinction. In the United States alone, as many as 90 million jobs in a labor force of 124 million are potentially vulnerable to displacement by automation.

It's not as if this is a revelation. For years the Tofflers and the Naisbitts of the world have lectured the rest of us that the end of the industrial age also means the end of ''mass production'' and ''mass labor.'' What they never mention is what ''the masses'' should do after they become redundant.

Laura D'Andrea Tyson, who heads the National Economic Council, argues that the Information Age will bring a plethora of new technologies and products that we can't yet even anticipate, and therefore it will create many new kinds of jobs. After a debate with me on CNN, Ms. Tyson noted that when the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, some people lost their jobs in the buggy trade but many more found work on the assembly line. She believes that the same operating rules will govern the information era.

The argument is compelling. Still, I can't help but think that she may be wrong. Even if thousands of new products come along, they are likely to be manufactured in near-workerless factories and marketed by near-virtual companies requiring ever-smaller, more highly skilled work forces.

This steady decline of mass labor threatens to undermine the very foundations of the modern American state. For nearly 200 years, the heart of the social contract and the measure of individual human worth have centered on the value of each person's labor. How does society even begin to adjust to a new era in which labor is devalued or even rendered worthless?

This is not the first time the issue of devalued human labor has arisen. The first group of Americans to be marginalized by the automation revolution was black men, more than 40 years ago. Their story is a bellwether.

In the mid-1950s, automation began to take a toll on the nation's factories. Hardest hit were unskilled jobs in the industries where black workers concentrated. Between 1953 and 1962, 1.6 million blue-collar manufacturing jobs were lost. Civil-rights activist Tom Kahn quipped, ''It's as if racism, having put the Negro in his economic place, stepped aside to watch technology destroy that 'place'.''

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