Fourth Way Perspectives

Working in the World
The Workerless World

(#) Parentheses indicate footnote number

Therefore the Lord God sent him [Adam] forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. Genesis. 3:23

And so Adam, driven from Eden for his lack of discrimination, is told what every father tells a grown son: get a job. Because of technology, not many Adams 'till the ground' any longer. Nevertheless most, at least until recently, have been, 'gainfully employed.' But that may be ending as we enter into 'the workerless world.'

First a quick bit of current history: fiber optic and satellite communications technology, linking worldwide computer networks, has created an embryonic global marketplace. To take advantage, businesses rush to grow bigger, doing more with fewer and fewer people. Hence, the rafts of mega-mergers, corporate downsizing, and fervor to automate. An alarming number of Adams as a result now find themselves walking the street.

From Eden onward, if the truth be admitted, Adam has been hell-bent on devising ways he wouldn't have to work so hard. Or, work at all. Well, finally Adam may get his wish—he may find himself among the permanently unemployed.

In his new book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin sees the juggernaut of what he calls the "Third Industrial Revolution" (the first revolution began in 1815 with the automation of the English crofters; the second with the institution of assembly line production in the 1920s) introducing a level of automation that will ultimately create a virtually workerless world.

In such a world, having a full-time job will be a mark of status. As in the feudal system of the Middle Ages there will be the nobility and the peasants (but, at least the peasants then could still 'till the ground'(2)). In the world to come, we are told, the top layer will be the industry chieftains and their top managers, a kind of priestly elite, supported by castes of symbolic analysts and technophiles to massage the information and maintain the machines. The three groups below, comprising the largest strata of society, will be 1) temporary employees, 2) the permanently unemployed, and 3) the unemployable.

Writes Rifkin:

"We are set on a firm course to an automated future and will likely approach a near-workerless era, at least in manufacturing, by the early decades of the coming century. The service sector, while slower to automate, will probably approach a nearly automated state by the mid-decades of the next century. The emerging knowledge sector will be able to absorb a small percentage of the displaced labor, but not nearly enough to make a substantial difference in the rising unemployment figures. Hundreds of millions of workers will be permanently idled by the twin forces of globalization and automation. Others, still employed, will work far fewer hours in order to more equitably distribute the remaining work and provide adequate purchasing power to absorb the increases in production. As machines increasingly replace workers in the coming decades, the labor of millions will be freed from the economic process and the pull of the marketplace. Unused human labor is the central overriding reality of the coming era and the issue that will need to be confronted and addressed head-on by every nation if civilization is to survive the impact of the Third Industrial Revolution."

Rifkin scoffs at the idea of retraining:

"The very notion that millions of workers displaced by the re-engineering and automation of the agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors can be retrained to be scientists, engineers, technicians, executives, consultants, teachers, lawyers and the like, and then somehow find the appropriate number of job openings in the very narrow high-tech sector, seems at best a pipe dream, and at worst a delusion."

If the problem of joblessness is not solved, Rifkin sees:

"A new form of barbarism waits just outside the walls of the modern world. Beyond the quiet suburbs, exurbs, and urban enclaves of the rich and near-rich lie millions upon millions of destitute and desperate human beings."

Empowering the Third Sector

Rifkin's solution is to empower what he calls "the Third Sector," made up of charity and community-based organizations which will step in to provide the basic services of aid and assistance that government cutbacks preclude. Government will fund this sector (presumably by taxing the corporations, who increasingly are multi-nationals with headquarters in tax havens) and provide the necessary incentives in terms of tax deductions for volunteer time and what he terms "social wages" instead of welfare that is earned by work within communities.

Rifkin concludes his study with the declaration:

"The end of work could spell a death sentence for civilization as we have come to know it. The end of work could also signal the beginning of a great social transformation, a rebirth of the human spirit."

Though Rifkin's analysis is penetrating and his Third Sector solution provocative, the future he envisions depends on the continuance of globalization and automation.

But we look more to the breakup of the global marketplace rather than its continuance. For a simple reason: massive jobless populations, their hopelessness and idleness a breeding ground for crime and terrorism, no nation can long endure. Therefore, as nations lose their industrial bases and jobs, they will resort to trade wars to protect them. Unable to sustain their economies for long in isolation, nations will combine into great superstate economies.


(1) The number of farmer workers in the United States has fallen from 23 million in 1950 to less than five million in 1990.

(2) An esoteric interpretation of having to "till the ground" may be the loosening and turning over of one's own 'ground'; that is, working with the lower centers and not the higher, as Gurdjieff stresses.

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