In with a new work culture


Author: Jeremy Rifkin
Publisher: GP Putnam & Sons, New York
Price: RM43.90
Available at all major bookstores

FOR all us, even those involved in the information technology world, the future does look bleak. The Millennium Bug looms overhead, and now some writer tells us that our livelihoods will come to an abrupt end.

What will we do? All our lives, we have been raised to go to school, study hard, aim for straight As, get a degree, get a job and continue working till, well, we retire or die ... whichever comes first.

And it has been drummed into all of us that working life takes a good 30 years of any person's life, and consumes as well as determines a great part of our lifestyles.

To many people, their lives and their jobs are synonymous. But how now, with Jeremy Rifkin's announcement of The End of Work? How do we cope? What measures do we take to avoid it? In a nutshell, what do we do with the bulk of our lives?

Sure you can say, I'd laze around, waste away until boredom sets in, do everything I'd ever wanted for which there was no time previously.

How long do you think you'd survive that? Take a good hard look at yourself before answering the question.

I must admit that Rifkin was not an easy read. It is difficult to present the bleak truth and also drive home the point with glaring figures. Yet he comes through with poetic prose that is descriptive and startling.

New life, old ills

According to Rifkin, the decline of the global labour work force will bring about new industries with different sets of skills. Well, you don't need to re-learn skills, just apply basic common sense in different situations. The author is very assuring at this point.

Yet, we must not run away from the obvious: Our way of life is changing amid the wave of technology sweeping the world. For those already involved in the world of technology -- even if indirectly -- the assimilation process, the acceptance for change is easier, if not welcomed.

But what of the rest of the world, which may be a bit more wary of IT? What benefit is it if only a part of society is able to progress, while the rest lays in limbo?

In the light of the hazy economy and worsening environmental situation, the Multimedia Super Corridor presents an opportunity to overcome that. At the recent Multimedia Asia '97, I am sure those who visited the exhibition (I could only read about it) saw the potential of how technology can forever change the way we live our lifes.

Heartening news indeed. But we won't go on about the virtues of embracing technology. Lest we forget, Rifkin seeks to remind us of the casualties of technological process. The growing malady seen through layoffs camouflaged as re-engineering exercises and automation, remains unspoken more often than not as we -- including In.Tech -- propogate IT as the way to a better life.

High tech stress, emotional and mental disorders are the diseases of the Information Age.

It is ironic that re-engineering involves professionals that were once guaranteed of jobs. Today's temp lines aren't made of the administrative and clerical sort, they are the likes of scientists, financial analysts and accountants.

Worse, Rifkin says that studies have indicated a positive correlation between rising technological unemployment and increased levels of depression and psychotic morbidity. Psychological death is often followed by suicide.

It cannot be denied that the more high tech we become, poverty and a sense of hopelessness is aggravated. Those who sit on the fringes of society are further marginalised.

Old life, new ways

Of course there are solutions. But the first step must come from the individual, says Rifkin. After 200-odd pages outlining the history of work and the stiff price of progress, Rifkin's note surges optimistically.

In the post market era, Rifkin tells of how the four-letter word, work, is given a breath of fresh air.

The introduction of the shorter work week is among those. Rifkin points out that Digital Equipment Corp and Hewlett-Packard are two of the many companies which have successfully implemented shorter work weeks which have led to effective cost savings instead of massive layoffs.

The trend seems to move in tandem with personal desires. A 1993 survey by the US-based Families and Work Institute revealed that employees preferred to devote time and energy to family and leisure. They are less willing to make sacrifices for work.

Voluntary work and community based organisations also sit high on the list of priorities. Rifkin believes that opportunities abound in what he calls the Third Sector, which is the civil society.

Creating a civil society is costly but Rifkin is confident that the economies of the information age will be willing to fund it. A civil society is paramount in rebuilding values and in addressing age old social problems that emerged from each industrial era.

Rifkin hopes that the creation of a civil society will bring out a social capital. Perhaps I am more cynical, for history has shown that mankind seldom learns from past mistakes. Or it is because Rifkin says that the government is the wild card in the creation of a civil society?

Or maybe I have watched too many bad sci-fi movies of what the future is going to look like.

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