Jeremy Rifkin’s Policy Suggestions for the End of Work

I've continued to get jazzed about this "work" topic such that it looks like we'll be covering some selection of readings in this area for episode #83. My question about this on the Facebook group has gotten a lot of responses, and I'm starting to get clearer on the spectrum of questions and positions here. Here's some information on one of the sources I had in my possession for the Not School Bergmann discussion but didn't much have time to look at before.

The End of Work (1995) by economist and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin is largely a historical and economic analysis to make the point that technology really is inexorably making the idea of traditional full-time employment for even most of us in impossibility. There's a lot of discussion of the industrial revolution (Actually, he says there have been two, with the third going on now.) to show that we really have made reductions in the work-week in the past without wrecking the economy and can do so again. I'm not sure how "mainstream" Rifkin is, though his bio looks pretty impressive. For another, more recent economic proposal about the reduced work week, here's a 2012 publication of the "New Economics Foundation," an "independent think tank," whatever that means exactly.

I also skimmed Rifkin's own more recent work, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, which is more about taking ecological considerations into economics and the new technologies (people using green technologies to feed into the power grid, fabricators and other de-centralizing industrial tools) that he thinks are already transforming the world. Some of this is very much in line with Bergmann's discussion of "high-tech self providing," but not directly about the labor issue.

Even moreso than Bergmann, Rifkin in The End of Work takes into account what might and likely won't be politically viable over and beyond what would actually work to ease the transition into a post-market economy, and it's interesting and a little sad to see what back in 1995 seemed possible that in the face of subsequent government dysfunction has on my judgment virtually no chance of being enacted now. Whereas Bergmann has by now more or less given up on the US as a major starting point for this, focusing instead on Europe and more poverty-stricken areas, Rifkin cites Tocqueville in pointing out how America is unique in the degree to which volunteerism has thrived. This is in the last part of the book, where he starts giving his positive policy suggestions and pointing out promising things already being done or proposed by governments, unions, corporations, etc.

The choice as Rifkin initially puts it for our future is between forced unemployment or voluntary leisure: We can either take positive steps to recognize the labor shortage and reduce the work week, doing so with incentives for business and individuals to encourage this, or we can let economic progress simply take its course, exacerbating the distance between the rich, overworked minority and the increasing poor. "Leisure" for Bergmann is actually a negative, pointing at lying around watching TV and otherwise being unproductive, which thereby is not only a social waste but is not really what people want (insofar as they've developed their wants, which requires institutions and channels, hard deliberation and trying lots of things out), not in the interest of our psychological health. However, as Rifkin starts talking about volunteerism, it's clear he has a similar disdain of that kind of leisure. He calls volunteerism "the third sector" after the public (government) and private (business), and calls this the future of work in the post-market area, such that we need to put more effort into tending it now, as legislative action is needed to make the third sector robust.

It's ironic, he says, that Reagan was so gung-ho on supporting volunteerism, and Bush continued this with his 1000-points-of-light platform, but in practice this was just a mask for removing government restraints on business, and in fact the ability of non-profits to do a wide number of things was restricted during these administrations, not expanded. Rifkin also points to liberal opposition to the volunteerism movement as Reagan took it up; there were liberal fears, for instance, that pushing people into volunteer positions would remove the need for government workers and that the emphasis on volunteerism was in any case condescending and sexist, as women have made up the bulk of the volunteer force and should, according to this feminist criticism, be financially recognized for their efforts.

Rifkin doesn't actually make the step Bergmann makes in talking about how organizations can help people figure out what they "really want," i.e. he doesn't explicitly start with Bergmann's Nietzschean/Hegelian picture of human nature whereby the self has to be grown. However, Rifkin is not free of philosophy and actually identifies Herbert Marcuse has having said 50 years ago, on Freudian grounds, that human freedom is predicated on reducing the amount of time we spend on forced labor.

In arguing for his two stated goals to respond to the labor shortage: the reduction of the work week and the cultivation of the third sector, Rifkin does have several policy proposals for us to consider re. their logistic and political viability:

1. Offer a tax deduction not just for charitable contributions, but for volunteering hours for a registered non-profit. Rifkin calls this a "shadow wage," and somehow moves from talking about currently employed people being encouraged to volunteer in this way to pushing the poor and unemployed into service this way. I'm not sure why he thinks offering a tax deduction to folks not currently making an income at all works. Just as we give different tax break levels to encourage different types of (e.g. hiring) activity, the legislature could vary the amount of this shadow wage to encourage different activities. Again, this would require a functioning legislature able to determine majority-willed priorities and enact them via legislation, which doesn't seem available to us in the foreseeable future.

2. However, he also recommends a guaranteed minimum income, and points to neo-conservative economist Milton Friedman for actually having promoted this idea, as a less costly alternative to the welfare system. So you'd stop welfare payments in favor of this guaranteed minimum income that would decrease as people add job work to it, but not decrease so fast that people would be discouraged from working. Rifkin cites some studies and government efforts whereby offering such an income did not make people less likely to work. Needless to say, in the U.S. today this would be a non-starter, and even in 1995 Rifkin acknowledges that this was running against political trends.

3. Cutting back public sector hours (without cutting back benefits), which would then encourage the private sector to do the same. We've seen the backlash against this among public-sector unions. Some state governments are instituting mandatory unpaid furlough days, which come as nonsensical work interruptions designed to save an immediate budget dollar rather than an overall planned reduction in hours. There's also no indication that this is causing businesses to cut back hours; the increase in overtime that Rifkin points to still seems on track (such that he thought the employed would soon be working as much on average as people in the 1920s).

4. Legislating that overtime payments be further increased from time-and-a-half to double or even triple, so as to discourage companies from using a small, overworked labor force. Again, advocating this in theory sounds great, but has the immediate effect of exacerbating a bad situation for lots of working people, such that cushioning the blow in this time of transition would require more government spending (see #2). Our Congress can no doubt be counted on, if such a reduction in "official" hours were to pass, to make sure to fail to provide any cushioning blow of this sort. Viva los Cheapos!

Rifkin is also well aware of the use of temporary labor and other measures that businesses use to keep from having to pay the taxes and benefits that go with having full-time employees, and so a major legislative goal should be to remove the hard distinction between full- and part-time work, both in one's experience as an worker and as an employer. This means de-coupling full-time employment from getting health insurance, and there are also considerations regarding unemployment insurance and other things. Rifkin points to people's overall willingness in many cases to trade work for free time so long as it's a good deal to do so--so long as they're still making enough to cover their cost of living. So increasing the minimum wage, making college affordable, controlling the cost of health care insurance, utilities, and fuel is all going to help people be able to afford to work less and so have more time to volunteer.

As much of that requires more tax revenue, Rifkin has a number of financing suggestions including less military spending, discontinuing subsidies to corporations, enacting a value-added tax on non-essential goods and services, etc. Pretty much all hot-button issues that would require some politicians to stake their entire careers on to get enacted. I am not optimistic.

This resistance from one side or both to any particular legislative action is why I think the important role for discussions like this now should be just to try to promote the ideal of an actually fulfilling job system, recognizing that it really is a possibility, and so get this to be an actual issue in public debate. It is not an exclusively liberal vision (isn't it affluent professionals who are more likely to regard more free time as the next thing that they really want?), there's room for discussion about the details of the vision (How much do we encourage entrepreneurship? How big should the transition safety net be?) and how to achieve it (through more legislative action, tax breaks, voluntary changes in standards, individual businesses trying new things?). Unless you really think that the current system is great (meaning everyone you know is either satisfied with his or her employment or it's his or her own damn fault) and sustainable over the long term (sure, new industry will generate enough jobs for nearly everyone!), then this is a cause that's worth putting your mind to and bitching to your legislators about. Utopianism is not just for stoners anymore!

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Profile photo of Michael Burgess says

    I have heard of Rifkin. Though why not Milton Friedman, too? You might be good with a mixture.

    If you can, I’d throw in something by Marx, Hayek, Friedman, Bergman and Rifkin.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      I’m actually not thinking that I’ll make the group read Rifkin for the podcast… too little information per page, virtually none of it philosophical in any conceivable way. I emailed Gary Gutting (see my previous post) and he did recommend a short article by Keynes, so we’ll do that for sure. Do you have a reference re. a specific place Friedman talks about this?


      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        That would be wonder if Professor Gutting could get in on this and another scholar is who has been an eye-open is Joerg Rieger (sorry but this subject has to get one stoked!). Gutting has written some nice article for the NTYs and Commonweal Magazine (that are very much needed in both the philosophical and theological world for citizens on a national and global level.


        Paul Krugman is wonderful because he blogs on topics that stir things up, i.e., Bitcon a few years back was hilarious, in that, it was like a major economist entering the “underworld” (more like virtual world), providing a space, a possibility, for Bitcon investors to come up from Down Yonder (so-to-speak). And, there’s a lot going on, specifically, between Germany and France right now re the EU and Eurozone for philosophers of all stripes interested in this bubbling philosophical battle that has been brewing. Krugman’s been ON IT, although somewhat reserved (I think) to speak directly re the tension the two leading voices of the EU (Germany and France).

        I am more optimistic (don’t know it this is a good thing) that leaders (rising among them[China]) in the global economy are invested to make things work. The Daoism scholar, James Miller, is invested in working toward a sustainable China–similar thesis as Jeremy Rifkin’s work focusing on an ecology economy.

        • dmf says

          not sure that much of Rieger translates out of theology for the philosophers to take up but Mark C.Taylor has done some fascinating work on faith,emergence/complexity, risk-taking, and confidence games.
          you may enjoy the folks @:

          • Profile photo of Tammy says

            Hi dmf,

            I’m not sure why you’re not sure Rieger’s work translates for philosophers. Did you read more about his work via the link provided? The interview in TOJ titled, “Power, Economics, and Christian Faith from Below: An Interview with Joerg Rieger” demonstrates how his scholarship utilizes deconstruction and systematic reconstruction (resist and reframe) that’s easily accessible because of the philosophical dimensions. I quote:

            “TOJ: It’s a gift.

            JR: It’s a gift that comes to you from the outside, most likely from the top down. How do you rethink that? By looking at labor. There’s a whole group now—John Milbank, Douglas Meeks, Daniel Bell—who talk about the gift, and then some philosophers too, like Jacques Derrida and others. By not talking about labor, I think they really miss a huge opportunity to talk about how God is actually at work. If there is a gift, which I do not necessarily want to deny, how is that gift produced? Who makes it happen? Where does it come from? Is it just dropped into our lap or is somebody involved in producing it? At that point production becomes important again because we are talking about a creative activity, a positive activity; we’re talking about the difference people are making. And we are talking about how production these days is undervalued, underappreciated, and hampered. Then the issue of organizing labor, fighting some of labor’s battles, becomes much deeper than just asking how much money people make. We need to look at how their contributions ultimately feed back into the contributions God is making to this world.

            I definitely want to talk about God but in a much more embodied and concrete sense. We can now talk about God at work here and in very specific forms. I think this is what the other models that we’re seeing these days are not doing for us. It becomes a little bit of wishful thinking, which leads us back to Marx, one more time. Marx understood the huge difference between idealism and materialism. Idealism is wishful thinking where you have great dreams and assume this will transform your world. Materialism for Marx is not a narrow thing that has only to do with matter; it is a reminder to idealists (and I think that includes a lot of religious people) that material processes in the world really matter and that they shape not only how we live our lives but how we think: our faith, our images of God. Where he’s getting that from, that could be a long discussion, but for Jews and Christians, if you simply read the Hebrew Bible, you get that materialist perspective. There are very few references to salvation as life after death or salvation as a dream world; salvation is always concrete, here and now, in the midst of real life; and it is produced. It is produced by identifiable people who do the work, and often these people are the least of these.”

          • dmf says

            the quasi-transcendental (religious turn to some) in the later Derrida (too much Levinas?) on the Gift and such was really the end of that line of inquiry (and quite contrary really to his own earlier insights/deconstructions) and in some ways is part of the rise of the new materialisms and the various speculative realisms, as for the preaching about an actual Presence/God at work in the world well I think that speaks for itself, no?

  2. RR says

    You guys should think about getting Peter Frase on. I’ve been reading him for quite a while and I have to say that he has perhaps the clearest take on what needs to change with current situation of labor (and inequality) and the important role that leisure may have to play in order to alleviate it. He’s greatly informed on the current economic situation and has been perhaps the most articulate voice out there (by “out there” I mean the econ blogs, of course) on why we should start thinking differently about our work/leisure lives. I find him to be far more informed that Rifkin. Here’s his blog’s url: Another (early) voice about this topic has been Robert Skidelsky, you guys should browse his book “How Much is Enough?”. And one more thing, you guys shouldn’t really think that talking about these sorts of things is radical anymore, Krugman talked about the need for a basic income in a recent NYT column.

    • Profile photo of Tammy says

      I ordered “How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life” back in May or June. Curiously it’s been on hold scheduled to ship in a week. Why would that be? Have you read this book? If you have what did you think?

      Re Krugman, he is a blast! I pay attention to WHEN he will post a comment.

  3. Profile photo of Tammy says

    This is really getting interesting with news of Europe’s .02% growth and debate about the liquidation trap (government not spending money on labor). I notice how little U.S. commenters pay little attention to people who actually LIVE in, say, Germany and other Europeans who make contributions.

    The Sociologist, Ulrich Beck, is familiar with Jeremy Rifkin’s work and cites him in “The Brave New World of Work” (2000). Good stuff!

  4. says

    I’m curious to read Rifkin’s books now, but at least from what you’ve presented his policy proposals seem wholly unambitious.

    Rather than starting with the desired outcome and then working backwards to engineer it through policies, he seems to be suggesting Band-Aids instead.

    I think a good point of focus for the entire debate, since it’s so easy to get pulled of the road and down into the thick of the policy weeds, is the social contract, and specifically America’s social contract, which for the most part amounts to: work hard and you can achieve a comfortable middle class existence. This still requires a lot of definition work (especially: what exactly qualifies as “middle class” these days?) but it seems to get to the heart of the issue, which is what do you do when there literally are not enough opportunities for everyone who wants to be part of that contract?

  5. Jesse says

    I’d recommend reading or skimming “Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy” by Robert Neuwirth. Like Rifkin, there is little-to-no philosophy in Neuwirth, but his skepticism of conventional perceptions and keen eye for history might offer a unique voice to your discussion.

    I have reservations about this episode being a side-step into policy and away from “philosophy” (if only because you guys have been on such a hot streak!). That being said, it will certainly be interesting to hear where you end up. Good luck!

  6. qapla says

    Very interesting and thought provoking as was/is Bergmann.
    But I don’t know if his proposals are tenable at all. Or if they would bring about the reverse of what is intended. I don’t know.

    But perhaps somethings also difficult to implement in the U.S. but baby steps in the right direction.

    1 Reform of banking/stock markets

    2 Universal health care

    3 Raise minimum wage to adjust for inflation.
    (The minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be $10.56 today when adjusted for inflation)

    4 Removal of money from politics or complete transparency of money in politics.

    I know these sound almost Utopian in comparison to the direction that things in the U.S. are going.
    But they would only be adjustments to the current systems and not radical changes. But then I know many want radical changes but I just don’t know or see how some of the things I have heard or read could ever actually work.

    Definitely worth thinking about, but I don’t know.

    Joseph Heath on economic myths in his new book “Filthy Lucre”

    much respect

  7. Tim says

    I’m probably more excited about this episode than any one in recent memory. I may even do all the readings beforehand!

    “It’s ironic, he says, that Reagan was so gung-ho on supporting volunteerism, and Bush continued this with his 1000-points-of-light platform, but in practice this was just a mask for removing government restraints on business”

    I’ve come to call this sort of thing “blackwashing” because it uses language and concepts traditionally associated with the “libertarian left” (read: anarchists) to push a neo-liberal agenda. if you listen to what Reagan or Bush or Cameron had to say about volunteerism out of context, it sounds shockingly similar to someone like Paul Goodman or Colin Ward. some of David Cameron’s election posters even looked like they were cribbed from May ’68!!:
    (compare with Martin Buber’s “The Society and the State,” which essentially says the same thing, but without equating “society” with “capitalism”!)
    it’s a bit of a bizarre phenomenon, but the weird upside of it to me is that it proves that people might actually be interested in libertarian socialist proposals were they to be decoupled from the scary rhetoric and historical baggage.

  8. Profile photo of Tammy says

    “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class” by David H. Author and David Dorna isn’t all doom and gloom about the future of work and ties in nicely with this blog.

    “Following this logic, we predict that the middle-skill jobs that survive will combine routine technical tasks with abstract and manual tasks in which workers have a comparative advantage — interpersonal interaction, adaptability and problem-solving. Along with medical paraprofessionals, this category includes numerous jobs for people in the skilled trades and repair: plumbers; builders; electricians; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning installers; automotive technicians; customer-service representatives; and even clerical workers who are required to do more than type and file. Indeed, even as formerly middle-skill occupations are being “deskilled,” or stripped of their routine technical tasks (brokering stocks, for example), other formerly high-end occupations are becoming accessible to workers with less esoteric technical mastery (for example, the work of the nurse practitioner, who increasingly diagnoses illness and prescribes drugs in lieu of a physician). Lawrence F. Katz, a labor economist at Harvard, memorably called those who fruitfully combine the foundational skills of a high school education with specific vocational skills the ‘new artisans.'”


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