Business History and book Comparison: Is it the change of work or the end of work that we face today?
Both the texts Change at Work by Peter Cappelli and the various other contributors to Cappelli's 1997 volume of essays, and Jeremy Rifkin in his 1994 text The End of Work attempted to explain how the changes of the technically modern and forward-thinking, dynamic marketplace of the 1990's would evolve both in relation to global capitalism and the individual employee. However, while both volumes attempted to consider how individuals and employers needed to adapt to everything from the new arrangements of families where mothers and fathers both worked, to the changes wrought by the Internet, to how employers needed to understand and adapt to the changing role of the employee given the widespread restructuring of many American firms, and the increased ubiquity of workplace education in the modern marketplace and virtual market space, it was the social critic Rifkin who offered the most far-reaching and transformative vision for the reader of today's 21st century.
Rifkin saw the change or end of work in terms of the relationship between employers and employees in the American and global marketplace in relationship to a reformed use of technology, first and foremost. Rather than place research and development at a premium, Rifkin argued, corporate employers must place human concerns and a global understanding of the impact firms can have upon the world when considering the expansion of their technology and the impact of their actions. Ultimately, Rifkin made the more provocative and well-argued manifesto of the two texts for even the vastly different American workplace of today. He does so even and perhaps especially because his text is not targeted only towards American managers and business leaders, but with an eye upon the then still developing vision of the role of the worker in relation to technology in the new European Union and the corporate presence in relation to the biosphere as a whole.
As early as 1994 Rifkin noted that while Americans continued to embrace the creed that workers must live to work, Europeans were said to work to live, and technology, rather than erasing the purpose of humanity in productivity must serve not just corporate productivity but serve workers. It is with such an eye upon American employees, Rifkin contended, using demonstrable statistical and anecdotal evidence, that the new global workplace's technology must be formulated. In 1994, Rifkin feared that workers would be replaced by sophisticated software technologies that would bring civilization ever closer to a near worker-less world, unless the global marketplace shifted its focus from production alone, to creating a more human and people-friendly marketplace and world. Change at Work, in contrast, addressed merely the shifting or lacking sense of responsibility many corporate owners felt for their employees.
Although the presence of laboring workers are still extant within the American infrastructure, since Rifkin penned his text, technology has made outsourcing of jobs an economic must for many of the largest companies in America, rather than a distant possibility. American businesses thus serve a bottom line, rather than strive to better a local community by providing jobs to members of the community. Although technology can seem to facilitate work and make one's work seem immediately easier through innovations such as wireless technology, for example, it has also deprived ordinary workers of their work in the land that gave birth to the companies that now use technology to employ cheaper laborers many continents away.
Specifically, as a solution to the problem of technology, Rifkin embraced Europe's humane and more organic and homegrown approach to capitalism. The attitude that work must serve the worker as well as the shareholders in a company, Rifkin argued, made for a healthier, better-educated populace and society -- and, in the long-term, for a more profitable society. Long before the much-trumpeted rise of the euro in relation to the falling American dollar, the U.S. lagged behind in its unimaginative approach to workers, forcing workers to work longer and longer working hours with little long-term compensation for their loyalty to the company, and at increasing productivity through the use of technology with little focus on the reasons why and the development of technology for technology's sake.
In 1994, by focusing on developing technology and productivity alone rather than human centered skills, Rifkin claimed, a marketplace that served the microchip rather than 'man' was created, while more human centered attitudes towards growth would be a better fashion of leading the way into a new era while competing well in terms of productivity. "We," Rifkin concluded his text, by which he meant Americans and European companies that emulated the American business model, rather than strove for a unique new model, "are entering a new age of global markets and automated production. The road to a near-workerless economy is within sight. Whether that road leads to a safe haven or a terrible abyss will depend on how well civilization prepares for the post-market era that will follow on the heels of the Third Industrial Revolution. 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. The future lies in our hands." (348-349)
In contrast, Peter Cappelli, Laurie Bassi, and Harry Katz, David Knoke, Paul Osterman, and Michael Useem placed the future and blame for employee and employer difficulties in their text Change at Work in the hands of workers themselves. They provided suggestions neither for the globe nor for corporate entities themselves, but stressed that now workers must take charge of their personal development instead of relying on their employers to provide them with long-term compensation and the needed but ever changing essential skills to 'make it' in a technically evolving marketplace. While empowering in spirit, and perhaps of more practical use than the aspects of Rifkin's comments that were largely directed towards political business leaders and CEOs, such personal empowerment can be difficult to obtain, particularly in a modern marketplace where the individual finds him or herself increasingly buffeted by pressures he or she cannot control. How can an individual worker, for example, contain or constrain the ways in which technology evolves or is used by his or her employer?
One need not be a Marxist to see in both Change at Work and The End of Work as giving a modern vision of a worker whose alienation from the firms at which he or she is employed is continually compounded by the large disparity between the pay of top managers and that of workers -- including middle managers and supervisors -- and where he or she is increasingly uncertain about the future potential of whatever job capacity in the company he or she is serving within as an employee. The authors of Change at Work agreed with Rifkin that the traditional relationship between employer and employees would wide and continue to become a fissure in economic life, and that employees would seek in vain for old, mentoring relationships. Meanwhile, such worker-friendly policies as flexible time for time-pressed couples of small children and elderly parents became more and more vital with the erosion of the conventional healthcare infrastructure of America -- and were not met by cash-strapped and impersonal employers.
But while Cappelli and his co writers see merely increased erosion in the employee and employer relationship, Rifkin saw at least some hope in a new relationship between employee and employer, but one that must come at the macro rather than the micro level. The reference to a rebirth of the human spirit at the end of the Rifkin text shows that the author is not a Luddite in the sense that he disdains all technical innovation, nor is he a pessimist about all facets of the potential for technological growth and innovation. What is key to Rifkin's assessment of America's lack of vision in its relationship to developing technology is that for all of its wealth and innovation, America's emphasis on individual autonomy and the accumulation of wealth for wealth's sake, rather than the development of national workers and national intelligence through education led to a fundamental lack of vision in the nation, the outsourcing of jobs to foreign competitors, and thus lead to economic as well as moral bankruptcy in the long run.
The erosion and impersonality evidenced in Change at Work is not inevitable in Rifkin's view. Rather, it is the product of a specific array of cultural forces that must be addressed and changed. The problems of Change at Work and The End of Work are traced by Rifkin to cultural roots of a fallacy that work alone will provide one with a stable sense of identity in modern life, while Rifkin argues that the only aspect of modern culture that will do so is the participation in a larger world community, of which one's inclusion in commerce is…
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