Jeremy Rifkin: In New Economy, ‘Social Skills Count More Than Work Skills’

Economist and bestselling author Jeremy Rifkin argues that our grandchildren will pity our working conditions and that a bright future is not a utopian dream but an achievable goal.

The European: Mr. Rifkin, the visions you formulate in your recent book “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” — a third industrial revolution and the end of capitalism as we know it — sound very utopian and far-fetched. Are you more interested in what happens the day after tomorrow rather than tomorrow?

Rifkin: I am not. The “Communications Internet” is already a reality and the “Energy Internet” will be so in a few years time. Then we will have a new technology platform that connects everybody and everything. These things are not far-fetched, they are already happening. Of course it will take another 20 years until that platform has reached a mature level but bear in mind that the first and second industrial revolution also took time. And to come back to your point: I am not a utopianist!

The European: You are not?

Rifkin: I hate utopia.

The European: Why?

Rifkin: The concept is based on the idea of a perfect world but there is no such thing. We are social creatures and our basic drive is empathetic distress. It is built into our neural circuitry. We are not meant to be predatory, utilitarian or pleasure seeking monsters like the early British and American enlightenment thought. We are empathetic but empathy is the opposite of utopia. When people ask “Gee, you want an empathetic society, isn’t that utopian?”, they don’t understand that there is no empathy in utopia. There is no empathy in heaven either. There is no mortality, no suffering, no pain, so how could there be empathy? When I empathize with another human being, I can smell life and death and that makes me conscious of the fact that we are all here, trying to flourish against the inevitable. That has nothing to do with utopia. It’s simply human nature.

The European: Nearly 20 years ago, you predicted the “End of Work” in your book with the same name. Last year, we invited Nobel laureate Robert Solow to comment on the fear of automation taking away our jobs and he equated it with the fear of comets striking earth. Both things are very unlikely.

Rifkin: He doesn’t know what he is talking about. Back in the 1930s, Lord Keynes wrote a letter to his grandchildren in which he told them about “technology displacement.” This was during the depression and Keynes witnessed how more and more workers were thrown onto the unemployment lines because machines were replacing them. Keynes wrote, that everybody was afraid of this because it was all of a sudden easier to develop and introduce new technologies than finding ways for people to be employed. This goes against classical and neo-classical economic theory that postulates that new technologies increase productivity by disrupting old patterns of work, thereby creating new opportunities and new types of jobs. We are witnessing something else.

The European: Namely?

Rifkin: What Keynes described in the 1930s is a different trend. We see that productivity started to replace employment faster than we could find new employment opportunities. Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, also observed this and in the 1960s when more and more workers became unemployed and they either found no jobs or just dead-end jobs. The 1990s saw yet another wave of increased automation and that was the context for my book “The End of Work.” What I predict in the book is what became reality later on: we are moving closer and closer to completely automating factory production. Today there is almost no mass-labor left. But it doesn’t stop there.

Rifkin: It requires us to rethink the nature of the work that we do. There will be less work in the automated economy. There is one last surge of work: in the next 35 years we will have to put the infrastructure of the automated economy in place — robots are not going to do that.

The European: The last surge of work is paving the way for the end of work — quite ironic.

Rifkin: It is. In Germany the entire energy grid will have to be transformed; every building has to be retrofit to accomodate new technologies. These are huge opportunities for construction companies and the semi-skilled or skilled labor force. Then we have to transform the entire German electricity grid to a digitalized Energy Internet, which is an enormous opportunity for IT and Electronics. Next is transport, turning conventional roads into smart roads. In every country, this transformation will keep two more generations busy but the downside is of course that the smarter technology gets, the less workers it needs to run properly.

The European: Are all these workers doomed or is there a way to cushion the effects of automation?

Rifkin: There is and we are beginning to see that a mass surge of employment is migrating out of the market and into the social economy, the not-for-profit economy, where human social capital counts more than economic capital. Machines are subsidiary in this sector because they can’t care for children or the elderly for example. Culture and Sports are other examples of employment islands sheltered from the storm. The social economy is the fastest growing employment sector in the world right now.

The European: Is it because the sector is so attractive or because people are afraid to loose their jobs?

Rifkin: It’s not just fear of unemployment that pushes people into this sector. A lot of young people choose the non-profit market over the traditional market and become social entrepreneurs. You might think that that is an oxymoron but these kids have never read Adam Smith and were socialized in a different way. We have to prepare the younger generations for a world of employment in which social skills count more than work skills per se.

The European: Is that a positive thing?

Rifkin: In the letter I referred to previously, Keynes wrote to his grandchildren that automation scares a lot of people but that it might liberate the human race, so there is certainly some good to it.

The European: He also wrote about a “leisure problem” replacing the “economic problem” because people might have too much spare time.

Rifkin: I don’t think there is a “leisure problem”, that’s where I disagree with him. Moving to an economy in which human capital is the main concern allows for much more engagement. We only use a tiny portion of our human mind and work like this will enable us to create our humanity and to grasp our journey on this planet. This engagement that I call “deep play” is more challenging and exhilarating than mindless work in a cubicle or in a factory. Your grandchildren will look back at this time and think: “Gee, my poor grandparents. Under what horrible conditions they had to work!”– just like we look back at slavery or serfdom.

The Huffington Post