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The Last Worker Standing

The Zero Marginal Cost Society, the Collaborative Commons and the Future of Employment

The following is excerpted from Jeremy Rifkin's latest book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, and appears here with the kind permission of the publisher.

We are in the midst of an epic change in the nature of work. The First Industrial Revolution ended slave and serf labor. The Second Industrial Revolution dramatically shrank agricultural and craft labor. The Third Industrial Revolution is sunsetting mass wage labor in the manufacturing and service industries and salaried professional labor in large parts of the knowledge sector.

A formidable new technology infrastructure -- the Internet of things (IoT) -- is emerging with the potential of reducing the marginal cost of labour in the production of goods and services to near zero in the years ahead. A mature Communication Internet is converging with a nascent Energy Internet and Logistics Internet to create a new technology platform that connects everything and everyone. Billions of sensors are being attached to natural resources, production lines, the electricity grid, logistics networks, recycling flows, and implanted in homes, offices, stores, and vehicles, feeding Big Data into an IoT global neural network. Businesses can connect to the network and use Big Data, analytics, and algorithms to accelerate efficiency, dramatically increase productivity, and lower the marginal labour cost of producing and distributing a wide range of products and services to near zero, making them nearly free, just like we previously did with information goods.

The wholesale substitution of intelligent technology for mass wage labor and salaried professional labor is beginning to disrupt the workings of the capitalist system. The question economists are so fearful to entertain is, what happens to market capitalism when productivity gains, brought on by intelligent technology, continue to reduce the need for human labor? We are seeing the unbundling of productivity from employment. Instead of the former facilitating the latter, it is now eliminating it. But since in capitalist markets capital and labor feed off of each other, how will society respond when so few people are gainfully employed that there are not enough buyers to purchase goods and services from sellers?


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Over the next several decades, the massive build-out of the Internet of Things infrastructure in every region of the world will give rise to one last surge of mass wage and salaried labor. The maturation of the Communication Internet, the conversion of millions of buildings into renewable energy micropower plants, the reconfiguration of the electricity grid into a green Energy Internet, and the changeover to an automated Logistics and Transportation Internet, will require millions of skilled and professional workers and spawn thousands of new businesses. However, by mid-century, economic activity in the marketplace is going to be increasingly in the hands of intelligent technology, supervised by small groups of highly skilled technical workers. The question then becomes what kind of economic system would we need to envision to engage millions of people in meaningful employment in a world where much of the economic activity is automated, nearly free and shareable?

A new economic paradigm -- the Collaborative Commons -- is arising out of a zero marginal cost society. Hundreds of millions of people are beginning to transfer bits and pieces of their economic life from capitalist markets to the social economy on the Collaborative Commons. Prosumers are not only producing and sharing their own information, entertainment, green energy and 3D-printed goods at near zero marginal cost and enrolling in massive open online college courses for nearly free, on the Collaborative Commons. They are also sharing cars, homes, clothes, tools, toys, and countless other items with one another via social media sites, rentals, redistribution clubs, and cooperatives, at low or near zero marginal cost. An increasing number of people are collaborating in "patient-driven" health-care networks to improve diagnoses and find new treatments and cures for diseases, again at near zero marginal cost. And young social entrepreneurs are establishing socially responsible businesses, crowdfunding new enterprises, and even creating alternative social currencies in the new economy. The result is that "exchange value" in the marketplace is increasingly being replaced by "shareable value" on the Collaborative Commons.

With fewer human beings required to produce goods and services in the market economy, millions of people around the world are beginning to migrate to new job opportunities in the burgeoning nonprofit sector growing alongside the evolving Collaborative Commons. The nonprofit sphere is already the fastest-growing employment sector in many of the advanced industrial economies of the world. In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom employment in the nonprofit sector currently exceeds 10 percent of the workforce. Despite the impressive growth in social commons employment, many economists disparage its significance, arguing that the nonprofit sector is not a self-sufficient economic force but rather a parasite, wholly dependent on government entitlements and private philanthropy. Quite the contrary. A recent study of 42 countries revealed that approximately 50 percent of the aggregate revenue of the nonprofit sector already comes from fees for services, while government support accounts for only 36 percent of the revenues, and private philanthropy for only 14 percent. For an increasing number for young people, the emerging social economy on the Collaborative Commons offers greater potential opportunity for self-development and promises more intense psychic rewards than traditional employment in the capitalist marketplace.

Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin is author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, one of the most popular social thinkers of our time, is a bestselling author whose 20 books have been translated into 35 languages. Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and to heads of state around the world and a lecturer at the Wharton School's Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information please visit

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