This is the question that most worries American voters -- and the question that American politicians seem most determined to sidestep. President Clinton warns workers that they will have to be retrained six or seven times during their work lives to match the dizzying speed of technological change. Speaker Newt Gingrich talks about the "end of the traditional job" and advises every American worker to become his or her own independent contractor.
But does the president really think 124 million Americans can reinvent themselves every five years to keep up with a high-tech marketplace? Does Mr. Gingrich honestly believe every American can become a free-lance entrepreneur, continually hustling contracts for short-term work assignments?
Buffeted by these unrealistic employment expectations, American workers are increasingly sullen and pessimistic. While corporate profits are heading through the roof, average families struggle to keep a roof over their heads. More than one-fifth of the work force is trapped in temporary assignments or works only part-time. Millions of others have slipped quietly out of the economy and into an underclass no longer counted in the permanent employment figures. A staggering 15 percent of the population now lives below the official poverty line.
Messrs. Clinton and Gingrich have asked American workers to remain patient. They explain that declining incomes represent only short-term adjustments. Democrats and Republicans alike beseech the faithful to place their trust in the high-tech future -- to journey with them into cyberspace and become pioneers on the new electronic frontier. Their enthusiasm for technological marvels has an almost camp ring to it. If you didn't know better, you might suspect Mickey and Pluto were taking you on a guided tour through the Epcot Center.
The hard reality is that the global economy is in the midst of a transformation as significant as the Industrial Revolution. We are in the early stages of a shift from "mass labor" to highly skilled "elite labor," accompanied by increasing automation in the production of goods and the delivery of services.
Sophisticated computers, robots, telecommunications and other Information Age technologies are replacing human beings in nearly every sector. Factory workers, secretaries, receptionists, clerical workers, salesclerks, bank tellers, telephone operators, librarians, wholesalers and middle managers are just a few of the many occupations destined for virtual extinction. In the United States alone, as many as 90 million jobs in a labor force of 124 million are potentially vulnerable to displacement by automation.
It's not as if this is a revelation. For years the Tofflers and the Naisbitts of the world have lectured the rest of us that the end of the industrial age also means the end of "mass production" and "mass labor." What they never mention is what "the masses" should do after they become redundant.
Laura D'Andrea Tyson, who heads the National Economic Council, argues that the Information Age will bring a plethora of new technologies and products that we can't yet even anticipate, and therefore it will create many new kinds of jobs. After a debate with me on CNN, Ms. Tyson noted that when the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, some people lost their jobs in the buggy trade but many more found work on the assembly line. She believes that the same operating rules will govern the information era.
The argument is compelling. Still, I can't help but think that she may be wrong. Even if thousands of new products come along, they are likely to be manufactured in near-workerless factories and marketed by near-virtual companies requiring ever-smaller, more highly skilled work forces.
This steady decline of mass labor threatens to undermine the very foundations of the modern American state. For nearly 200 years, the heart of the social contract and the measure of individual human worth have centered on the value of each person's labor. How does society even begin to adjust to a new era in which labor is devalued or even rendered worthless?
This is not the first time the issue of devalued human labor has arisen. The first group of Americans to be marginalized by the automation revolution was black men, more than 40 years ago. Their story is a bellwether.
In the mid-1950s, automation began to take a toll on the nation's factories. Hardest hit were unskilled jobs in the industries where black workers concentrated. Between 1953 and 1962, 1.6 million blue-collar manufacturing jobs were lost. Civil-rights activist Tom Kahn quipped, "It's as if racism, having put the Negro in his economic place, stepped aside to watch technology destroy that 'place'."
Millions of African American workers and their families became part of a perpetually unemployed "underclass" whose unskilled labor was no longer required in the mainstream economy. Vanquished and forgotten, many urban blacks vented their frustration and anger by taking to the streets. The rioting began in Watts in 1965 and spread east to Detroit and other Northern industrial cities.
Today, the same technological and economic forces are beginning to affect large numbers of white male workers. Many of the disaffected white men who make up ultra-right-wing organizations are high school or community-college graduates with limited skills who are forced to compete for a diminishing number of agricultural, manufacturing and service jobs.
While they blame affirmative-action programs, immigrant groups and illegal aliens for their woes, these men miss the real cause of their plight -- technological innovations that devalue their labor. Like African American men in the 1960s, the new militants view the government and law-enforcement agencies as the enemy. They see a grand conspiracy to deny them their basic freedoms and constitutional rights. And they are arming themselves for a revolution.
The Information Age may present difficulties for the captains of industry as well. By replacing more and more workers with machines, employers will eventually come up against the two economic Achilles' heels of the Information Age. The first is a simple problem of supply and demand: If mass numbers of people are underemployed or unemployed, who's going to buy the flood of products and services being churned out?
The second Achilles' heel for business -- and one never talked about -- is the effect on capital accumulation when vast numbers of employees are let go or hired on a temporary basis so that employers can avoid paying out benefits -- especially pension-fund benefits. As it turns out, pension funds, now worth more than $5 trillion in the United States alone, keep much of the capitalist system afloat. For nearly 25 years, the pension funds of millions of workers have served as a forced savings pool that has financed capital investments.
If too many workers are let go or marginalized into jobs without pension benefits, the capitalist system is likely to collapse slowly in on itself as employers drain it of the workers' funds necessary for new capital investments. In the final analysis, sharing the vast productivity gains of the Information Age is absolutely essential to guarantee the well-being of management, stockholders, labor and the economy as a whole.
In the past, when new technology increased productivity -- such as in the 1920s when oil and electricity replaced coal- and steam-powered plants -- American workers organized collectively to demand a shorter work week and better pay and benefits. Today, employers are shortening not the work week, but the work force -- effectively preventing millions of American workers from enjoying the benefits of the technology revolution.
Organized labor has been weakened by 40 years of automation, a decline in union membership, and a growing temp work force that is difficult to organize. In meetings with union officials, I have found them universally reluctant to deal with the notion that mass labor -- the very basis of trade unionism -- will continue to decline and may even disappear altogether. Union leaders cannot conceive that they may have to rethink their mission in order to accommodate a fundamental change in the nature of work.
Working women may hold the key to whether organized labor can reinvent itself in time to survive the Information Age. Women now make up about half of the U.S. work force, and a majority of employed women provide half or more of their household's income.
In addition to holding down a 40-hour job, working women often manage the household as well. Significantly, nearly 44 percent of all employed women say they would prefer more time with their family to more money.
This is one reason many progressive labor leaders believe the rebirth of the American labor movement hinges on organizing women workers. The call for a 30-hour work week is a powerful rallying cry that could unite trade unions, women's groups, parenting organizations, churches and synagogues.
Of course, employers will argue that shortening the work week is too costly and would threaten their ability to compete both domestically and abroad. That need not be so. Companies like Hewlett-Packard in France and BMW in Germany have reduced their workweek while continuing to pay workers at the same weekly rate. In return, the workers have agreed to work shifts. Management executives reason that, if they can operate the new high-tech plants on a 24-hour basis, they can double or triple productivity and thus afford to pay workers the same.
In France, government officials are playing with the idea of forgiving the payroll taxes for employers who voluntarily reduce their work week. While the government will lose tax revenue, economists argue that fewer people will be on welfare, and the new workers will be taxpayers with purchasing power. Employers, workers, the economy and the government all benefit.
In this country, generous tax credits could be extended to any company willing both to reduce its work week voluntarily and implement a profit-sharing plan so that its employees will benefit directly from productivity gains.
The biggest surprise I've encountered in the fledgling debate over rethinking work has been the response of some business leaders. I have found genuine concern among a small but growing number of business executives over the critical question of what to do with the millions of people whose labor will be needed less, or not at all, in an increasingly automated age.
Many executives have close friends who have been re-engineered out of a job -- replaced by the new technologies of the Information Age. Others have had to take part in the painful process of letting employees go in order to optimize the bottom line. Some tell me they worry whether their own children will be able to find a job when they enter the high-tech labor market in a few years.
Until now, politicians and economists have steadfastly refused to entertain a discussion of how we prepare for a new economic era characterized by the diminishing need for mass human labor. Until we have that conversation, the fear, anger, and frustration of millions of Americans are going to grow in intensity and become manifest through increasingly hostile and extreme social and political venues.
We are long overdue for public debate over the future of work and how to share the productivity gains of the Information Age. The 1966 election year offers the ideal time to begin talking with each other -- both about our deep misgivings and our guarded hopes -- as we journey into a new economic era.
Jeremy Rifkin is the author of "The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era." This article originally appeared in Mother Jones magazine.