Jeremy Rifkin, 73 and born in Denver, Colorado, is a man of many occupations. He is a socio-economic theorist, an activist, a political advisor and the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends; a non-profit organisation whose goal is to examine and assess the implications of modern-day trends in science and technology. Rifkin is the author of 20 best-selling books, such as “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” (2014) and “The Third Industrial Revolution” (2011). In his earlier years, he initiated a protest against oil companies in 1973, and launched a campaign against beef consumption in 1993. Rifkin works in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C.
Jeremy Rifkin makes ideas popular. So popular that the 48th St. Gallen Symposium was partly inspired by one of his most well-known books. The symposium’s title – “Beyond the end of work” – is reminiscent of his famous book, “The End of Work,” published in 1995. He has also developed ideas like the Third Industrial Revolution and the Zero Marginal Cost society. He is not just a best-selling author and a theorist: Rifkin is also an activist and a political advisor. At the symposium, Rifkin explained how he comes up with new ideas, why he would advise any country on earth, and why he does not want to retire soon.
How does it feel to have a complete symposium tailored to your ideas?
Well, I think a lot of us are coming to these ideas at the same time.
Keynes had similar ideas seven decades ago.
Keynes addressed the issue of how you deal with technological displacement. He said we were going to have to re-envision what kind of contributions people make to the world: Let the machines do the heavy lifting, so we do not have to. There is always something constructive for the human race to do. What he was suggesting was that we create our humanity, we create social capital, and we learn to live together around this planet. There are many things left undone. If we can let machines do the things that we do not need to, that is fine.
You published “The End of Work” in 1995. Now many of its predictions are coming true. Do you consider yourself to be a prophet?
No. You did not have to be clairvoyant to see this situation coming. I said at that time that automation was affecting factory work and now white-collar work. As we move towards the third industrial revolution, we are seeing that knowledge workers and creative workers are under threat because of the introduction of digital technology and computer software. That was already happening in 1995.
Also, the foreword of “The End of Work” was done by Robert Heilbroner, a great economist. And Vassily Leontief, the great Nobel Laureate, did the comment inside. They were already talking about this before me. I am just part of a string that emerged in the 1960s with digital technology.
The question of automation really started with Norbert Wiener in cybernetics, and then Walter Reuther and the unions and then economists Heilbroner and Leontief. By 1995, we were already starting to see these issues explode onto the social scene.
You mention people and ideas from economic history to which you are referring. How do you develop your ideas for books?
I am a lifelong activist, but I also teach, and I write. I think if one is just an activist, without doing any kind of intellectual homework, it is easy to get buried. If one is an intellectual in the ivory tower preparing books and materials that have no relationship with or active involvement in the community, the challenge is appraising what is really happening in the world.
Speaking of activism, Vice Media made a film about you and your work which was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. Are you a pop star?
No. Do I look like one? I am 73 years old. I have been doing this for a long time: Three generations now. There are people I meet who think I am already dead, because they read my books 40 or 50 years ago. It is a long time. It is a matter of just hanging in there and realising the fundamental changes we talk about take at least three generations. Sometimes it is difficult saying the same things over and over again. But one generation may have heard it and you may still need to tell the story again for the next generation.
Your consulting work for governments is non-profit, is that right?
Sometimes I do it for free, sometimes I do it for small fees that are not commensurate with corporate fees. For example, I am doing the European Business Summit in June. We did a strategic study on the third industrial revolution for the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg.
Are there countries or regions you would not advise? What if North Korea would ask for your advice?
It depends. What I would say is, we consult for centre-right and centre-left governments. I would like to see everyone in the world moving to this narrative and this transformation. I know there will be different approaches, there will be things that they do not want to do that I would like them to do. The important thing is that we have got to get a transition across humanity to this post-carbon, digitally-connected, hybrid network capitalist-sharing economy very quickly.
How do you feel if your clients – especially governments – do not take your advice?
We had some earlier projects where the government changed hands. We had a nice plan for Rome, for example, and then the city government changed hands and it did not happen. There was really a lot of work done on that. Our plan for San Antonio went well. They changed their whole model away from fossil fuels and nuclear to solar and wind.
Right now the US government is not focusing on reducing carbon emissions. Does that make you sad?
I do not spend any time thinking about what the federal government in the United States does. I did go to Congress to talk to folks there. If someone running for office wants to talk to me, I will talk to them. If a city or a region or a state government comes to us, we will work with them. We are now starting to focus on North America. Our plans for Europe are moving forward. We have China as a client and that is moving forward too. I would like to move to the United States, Canada, and Mexico next. And India for sure. In fact we are about to announce the first major strategic
fossil fuel to renewables transition plan in North America shortly.
You are writing about the end of work, and the symposium is about the end of work. However, you are about ten years past retirement age. Do you plan to stop working at some point?
I would like to ease off a little bit, especially the travelling. I enjoy doing the research and the books, to tell you the truth.
Are you a little bit addicted to work?
I feel compelled. Given the situation that is going on in the world, it is really tough to say no. It is pretty bad out there, what is happening. On the other hand, I am becoming aware of my health. I would probably like to do a little bit less. That is why I am hoping that other people will come on board.