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Saturday, May 10, 2014

End of Jobs For Humans Revisited

in 1995, Jeremy Rifkin authored a controversial book called The End of Work which predicted that jobs for humans would eventually disappear. Now, almost two decades after that book was published, it has become clear that he was indeed correct.

Along with the demise of capitalism and socialism, the end of human jobs is coming. The changes are going to be radical. In his new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, Rifkin revisits the subject:

Today, near workerless factories run by computer programs are increasingly the norm, both in highly industrialized countries and developing nations. The steel industry is a typical example. Like the auto industry and other key Second Industrial Revolution manufacturing enterprises that were the staples of blue-collar employment, the steel industry is undergoing a revolution that is quickly eliminating workers on the factory floor. Computerized programs and robotics have allowed the steel industry to slash its workforces in recent decades. In the United States, between 1982 and 2002, steel production rose from 75 million tons to 120 million tons, while the number of steel workers declined from 289,000 to 74,000.
American and European politicians, and the general public, blame blue collar job losses on the relocation of manufacturing to cheap labor markets like China. The fact is that something more consequential has taken place. Between 1995 and 2002, 22 million manufacturing jobs were eliminated in the global economy while global production increased by more than 30 percent worldwide. The United States lost 11 percent of its manufacturing jobs to automation. Even China shed 16 million factory workers while increasing its productivity with IT and robotics, allowing it to produce more output, more cheaply, with fewer workers.
Manufacturers that have long relied on cheap labor in their Chinese production facilities are bringing production back home with advanced robotics that are cheaper and more efficient than their Chinese workforces. At Philips’s new electronic factory in the Netherlands, the 128 robot arms work at such a quick pace that they have to be put behind glass cases so that the handful of supervisors aren’t injured. Philips’s robotized Dutch factory produces the equivalent output of electronics products as its Chinese production facility with one-tenth of the number of workers.
Anxious not to be left behind, many of China’s largest manufacturers are quickly replacing their cheap workers with even cheaper robots. Foxconn, the giant Chinese manufacturer that produces iPhones, plans to install one million robots in the next few years, eliminating a large portion of its workforce. Terry Gou, CEO of Foxconn, whose global workforce totals more than one million, joked that he would prefer one million robots. “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.” The robot workforce is climbing around the world. Robot sales grew by 43 percent in both the United States and the European Union in 2011, moving the manufacturing sector ever closer to near workerless production, or what the industry calls “lights-out” production. China, India, Mexico, and other emerging nations are learning quickly that the cheapest workers in the world are not as cheap, efficient, and productive as the information technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence that replaces them.

What happens when human jobs are eliminated? Rifkin doesn't spell out in detail, but sketches a general outline of a Collaborative Economy in which material capital is replaced:

We are in the midst of an epic change in the nature of work. The First Industrial Revolution ended slave and serf labor. The Second Industrial Revolution dramatically shrank agricultural and craft labor. The Third Industrial Revolution is sunsetting mass wage labor in the manufacturing and service industries and salaried professional labor in large parts of the knowledge sector.
In the coming era, deep play in the Collaborative Commons becomes as important as hard work was in the market economy, and the amassing of social capital becomes as valued as the accumulation of market capital. Attachment to community and the search for transcendence and meaning comes to define the measure of one’s life rather than one’s material wealth.