Rifkin's The End of Work: a tale retold?

Tomie DePaola retells the traditional Italian story of Strega Nona, a witch who has a magic pot that produces spaghetti at her command. Her servant, a young boy, can't get enough of the spaghetti and longs for the power to make all he wants. Secretly, the young boy watches Strega Nona as she casts her spell on the pot.

Then one day the boy gets his chance. Strega Nona must go to town on an errand. She leaves him alone in the house. Before she leaves, she warns the boy to stay away from the pot. No sooner is Strega Nona out of sight, than the boy speaks the magic words over the pot -- to his delight the pot begins churning out spaghetti.

The boy eats and eats to his heart's content and all the while the pot churns out spaghetti. Eventually, the boy can eat no more but he discovers that he doesn't know how to stop the pot. The spaghetti soon fills up the house. It spills out the windows and doors and flows -- like lava from a volcano -- down the road toward town. In vain, the boy tries to contain the mess until, at the very last minute, Strega Nona returns to "uncast" the spell.

Jeremy Rifkin, in The End of Work, tells another version of the Strega Nona -- or sorcerer's apprentice -- tale. In Rifkin's story, "We are in the early stages of a long-term shift from 'mass labor' to highly skilled 'elite labor', accompanied by increasing automation in the production of goods and the delivery of services." he tells us, "Workerless factories and virtual companies loom on the horizon." Rifkin envisions this technological spaghetti pot churning out a future of steadily climbing unemployment -- and its consequent social dislocation -- over the next four decades.

What can we do to avoid the foretold catastrophe? Rifkin's prescription calls for a "shorter workweek, tax credits for volunteer work and new work in the nonprofit sector." Appealing as these suggestions may be, the question must be asked: do they provide a basis for building viable policy options?

Rifkin himself points to a survey of 300 business leaders in the US, which received not a single positive response. In a recent article in Utne Reader, he quotes a Fortune 500 CEO as saying, "My view of the world, our country, and our country's needs is dramatically opposite of yours. I cannot imagine a shorter workweek, I can imagine a longer one ... if America is to be competitive in the first half of the next century.

As one critic put it, "[Rifkin's nice ideas]... are belied by every page of his previous analysis... the path from our reality to Rifkin's vision is mere fantasy." To be sure, Rifkin's story calls for the return of Strega Nona. In reality, there is no Strega Nona.

But perhaps Strega Nona, the story, can help us even as Strega Nona, the fictional witch, deserts us. Stories are ways for passing on the wisdom of experience from generation to generation. The Strega Nona story is a story about wisdom. More precisely it is a story about the perils of mistaking mere technical know-how for wisdom. Strega Nona counsels us to be wise.

This wisdom requires us to learn to read Rifkin's story -- and the unnamed Fortune 500 CEO's story -- as stories. It requires us to ask whether a particular story is compelling because of its facts or simply because of its beguiling form. And, most importantly, it enables us to tell new stories, metanarratives, that help us understand the coincident plausibility of conflicting, even contradictory, stories. This last feature, alone, may give us firm ground on which to develop viable policy.

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