Fast-forward to the Recession of 2008. To a great extent Rifkin’s prospective has indeed come true. Rifkin had accurately had predicted the eventual demise of the middle class. Increased productivity, including “automation” (the old term) has indeed lessened the demand for labor. Even the “new” economies that are touted as the future economy do not necessarily require a lot of human labor.
The newer profitable companies with huge market capitalization, such as Google and Microsoft, don’t really employ a lot of bodies. The same is true for financial institutions; they too don’t require a lot of people to generate wealth. The hottest consumer items on the market today, mostly technological products like phones, touch-pad devices – None of them are manufactured in the USA. Even the Chinese are aggressively outpacing our “innovations” in solar and battery technology.
I think back to my first job out of college, working in a clerical unit in Greyhound Bus Lines. The manual sorting tasks required in my job back employed several dozen people to manually sort out paper ticketing trails. This kind of tedious work has been now wholly replaced by simple bar codes, scanners and computers. One can easily imagine how this simple technology across the board of bureaucratic functions alone has easily replaced millions of jobs that were once completed by humans.
Later after I landed a “real” job working in banking, I embarked on what I assumed would be a career. The assumption was that you worked your way up through the bank eventually becoming a loan officer. I am not sure how many of you have applied for a loan at your local bank recently, but if you have, you may have noticed a lot “empty space” where all those bank employee desks used to be. Today your application is faxed, or e-mailed up to a centralized loan approval center where a few designated “loan officers” actually make those decisions. Seriously, why would the bank want to staff all those highly compensated suit-and-tie bodies in the local branch bank when instead they need only lower-paid staffers to assemble and pass along your loan paperwork to the few main office employees empowered to make those decisions?
It is true that technology itself spun has off new career paths – and I followed one of them. When I later worked for the state Department of Human Services as a Welfare Caseworker, much of the paperwork was eventually shifted over to software running on networked personal computers. This productivity change opened up a new career path for me as a Computer Network Technician… and at a nicely increased salary. But even technology is subject to productivity enhancements. Eventually the work I did in the local offices was “centralized” elsewhere; less and less of the work I did as a technician in the field was deemed necessary. By the time I retired I felt like my job was little more than as a “PC mechanic”.
The national and global economies are still reeling from the aftermath the Debt Ceiling Circus. Economists are talking confidently of Double-Dip Recession and postulating on how long it will take for the economy to pick up again. Of course the two major political parties are even now strategizing on how the prolonged recession will play out to their respective advantages in the upcoming election of 2012.
My longer term prediction is much darker: It won’t matter which party prevails. The economy will never get better more than marginally or temporarily. To me, the fate of our standard of living on this planet boils down to a simple math problem:
- World population will soon hit 7,000,000,000.
- Increases in productivity in every sector (agriculture, technology, finance, etc. will continue to require fewer people to perform them. The living standard of middle class will continue to shrink and economies based on consumer spending will founder.
- Income disparity between the very rich and the middle and lower classes will increase.
- The last of the “easily obtainable” natural resources have (or will have) peaked during our lifetime.
- Food will become more expensive as bio-fuels consume more of the food producing land and resources needed to produce it.
- Global climate change will continue to have a negative impact on all of the above regardless of whether people “believe” its happening or agree on what the root cause is.