Humans follow the horse -- into obsolescence

January 05, 1996|By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- On Tuesday, the first working day of 1996, the New York Stock Exchange was off to quite a start, with the Dow-Jones average jumping 60 points. At the same time, AT&T, the chipperest of the the blue-chippers, announced it was laying off 40,000 more employees.

The company line, articulated by a spokesman, was: ''This will be a test of our compassion. . . . We're pledging to find people jobs outside the company.''

I'm sure they mean well at the old phone company, once famous for its paternalism and employer-employee loyalty. But I doubt that all the compassion they can muster is going to find anything like comparable jobs for the middle managers who will soon be on the streets. If there were jobs like that around, more AT&T employees would have accepted the buyouts the company has been offering for the past year or so.

Those jobs are disappearing, inside the company and out. Compassion may be all most of those folks can get now. For all practical purposes, they are being replaced by computers.

The role of human beings

''The wholesale substitution of machines for workers is going to force every nation to rethink the role of human beings in the social process,'' writes economist Jeremy Rifkin in a challenging book titled ''The End of Work.'' ''Redefining opportunities and responsibilities for millions of people in a society absent of mass formal employment is likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.''

O, productivity! The magical machines are so much cheaper and more efficient than we, the people. ''Most of the cuts,'' said the Wall Street Journal, commenting on 34,000 recent layoffs at regional telephone companies, ''are facilitated, one way or another, by new software programs, better computer networks and more powerful hardware.''

''For the whole of the modern era, people's worth has been measured by the market value of their labor,'' says Mr. Rifkin. ''Now that the commodity value of human labor is becoming increasingly tangential and irrelevant in an ever more automated world, new ways of defining human worth and social relationships will need to be explored.''

A tiny but illustrative example close to home: One of my sons, an aspiring actor, has a day job as a bellman at a fancy New York hotel. I asked him about tips the other day. ''No more tips,'' he said, exaggerating a bit. ''It's all roll-aboards now; no one needs help anymore.''

They may not need help with their bags, but others may not have a reason or the money to have luggage. From a more elevated platform than the bell captain's stand, Nobel economist Wassily Leontief has written: ''The role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.''

Jacques Attali, a former French technology minister and now president of the new European Bank, put it this way: ''Machines are the new proletariat. The working class is being given its walking papers.'' Peter Drucker, the American master of management, added: ''The disappearance of labor as a key factor of production [is the] unfinished business of capitalist society.''

Mr. Rifkin quotes William Winpisinger, past president of the International Association of Machinists, a union that has lost half its membership to automation, as saying that within 30 years as little as 2 percent of the current global work force will be able to produce all the goods needed to meet total world demand.

Neither modern management nor the absentee landlords of the stock exchanges have shown much inclination to share the profitable benefits of increased productivity with their employees -- and, so, there are ongoing massive transfers of wealth from the middle to the top of the economic pyramid of modern capitalist societies. ''Grow the economy,'' says the president of the United States, but that growth is not being shared as it once was, and as he seems to believe it still is.

'Death' or 'rebirth'

''Redefining the role of the individual in a society absent of mass formal work is, perhaps, the seminal issue of the coming age,'' concludes Mr. Rifkin. He is more optimistic than many, promoting ideas that include a guaranteed minimum income and tax deductions for community service, all financed by European-style value-added taxation. He's also for profit sharing, shorter work weeks and double pay for overtime to encourage the hiring of more employees.

Finally, though, he can say only this: ''The end of work could spell a death sentence for civilization as we have come to know it . . . [or] the beginning of a great social transformation, a rebirth of the human spirit.''

''Death'' and ''rebirth'' are very heavy words, but on this subject pTC they may be appropriate. Loss of work is loss of identity in the work-ethic America we know. What are people conditioned and trained to work to do with their lives if they have no role or stake in national productivity? Such Americans, ready, willing but not able to find productive work in an economy of prosperous numbers, could be a greater threat to American democracy than communism ever was.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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