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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google CEO: Fight Unemployment With Job Sharing

Google CEO Larry Page suggests we can reduce unemployment by dividing jobs in half.

In the future, we will work less and enjoy more leisure time, while being shuttled around in self-driving cars, attended by artificial intelligence that makes better decisions than we do.

That might sound like the setup for an episode of Star Trek, but it's the world Google's founders see ahead of us.

In a video interview published last week and moderated by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Google CEO Larry Page and co-founder Sergey Brin discussed a range of topics that spanned the company's history, its future focus, and its founders' views on economic issues.

[Are there (more) robots in your future? Read Robots Rising: 7 Real-Life Roles.]

After touching on the importance of Android, Google Now, Google's experimental projects, and machine learning to his company's future, Page asserted that we should be able to work less and be happier.

"I totally believe we should be living in a time of abundance, like Peter Diamandis's book," said Page. "If you really think about the things that you need to make yourself happy -- housing, security, opportunities for your kids -- anthropologists have been identifying these things. It's not that hard for us to provide those things." (Certainly it's not hard if you're a billionaire.)

Driverless cars and other automation will eliminate jobs, say Google founders.
Driverless cars and other automation will eliminate jobs, say Google founders.

Abundance (Free Press, 2012) is a book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler that reviewer Timothy Ogden describes as "techno-utopianism at its worst" because it sees every problem as something technology can solve. The New York Times review is a bit more charitable, finding the book's optimism appealing despite some quibbles.

Anyway, Page contends that people don't need to work that hard to take care of life's necessities. He also says people aren't happy when they're idle, so they need to be given something to do.

And it appears that idle workers will become more common. In a recent Fortune article, Martin Ford, author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, argues there's mounting evidence that unemployment will remain high for years because automation obviates the need for a growing range of human skills.

Others have said as much. In a recent interview, Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business and co-author of The Second Machine Age, said, "I don't know how you can make the case that [manufacturing] technologies are creating as many jobs as they're destroying."

Page's answer to all this is sharing, specifically job sharing. "I was talking to Richard Branson about this," said Page. "They don't have enough jobs in the UK. He's been trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time. So at least, the young people can have a half-time job rather than no job. And it's a slightly greater cost for employers. I was thinking, the extension of that is you have global unemployment or widespread unemployment. You just reduce work time."

There is, however, a problem with this scenario. Sharing a job means a 50% salary cut, unless companies are keen to double wages across the board, and that isn't likely. With 50% less income, the things people need to be happy -- which probably extend beyond Page's list of housing, security, and opportunities for offspring -- become harder to afford.

According to a recent Zillow survey, San Franciscans spend an average of 40% of their income on rent. With half as much income, housing suddenly consumes 80% of available funds. Then comes food. Although Americans spend far lower a percentage of their income on food (less than 10%) than do people in many other countries, even this small percentage becomes significant when income is halved. Sharing a job in San Francisco would mean housing, food, and maybe a few dollars left over for Internet access.

Page doesn't appear to have taken steps to encourage Googlers to work less, and Brin voiced his disagreement with the idea, so don't expect widespread job sharing at Google or other Silicon Valley companies any time soon.

Yet without job sharing to mitigate technologically induced unemployment, more and more people might become idle. Khosla goes as far as to predict the need for a vastly expanded welfare program. "Looking 40 years out, I find it hard to imagine why we won't need to support half the population to not work but pursue other interests that are interesting to them," he said.

Just think, you could get paid to post cat pictures on Google+. Techno-utopianism indeed.

Network engineers need broader expertise for their careers to thrive in the coming software-defined networking era. Also in the new SDN Careers issue of Network Computing: Don't be a networking dinosaur.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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Shane M. O'Neill
Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2014 | 10:51:04 AM
Re: Fight Unemployment With Job Sharing
An out-of-touch billionaire thinking out loud, and not thinking very clearly. I can't tell if this is his cock-eyed utopian vision where people will be happy with just the essentials and give up half their salaries for more free time OR if it's a last ditch scramble to create half-jobs as unemployment surges and social and economic circumstances deteriorate. Either way Larry, test it out at Google and let us know how it goes.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 10:33:15 AM
Job sharing could work in some instances
Re; Job sharing.  I make more money than I need.  I have a friend who has been mostly out of work for a year.  I could EASILY live on 2/3 of my salary.  If I job shared with my friend and she earned 1/3 of my salary, she would be thrilled as it would be as much money as she has ever earned in her life.

I'm not a millionare and I make less than 100K a year



User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 10:29:21 AM
Here's Reality For You
This talk topic is something they were probably talking about over several beers at the local bar because that's all it is, drunk talk.


Reality is this: cost of living is rising and employment and salaries are declining fast and have been for quite some time now. The rich get richer or stay rich, the poor stay poor and the middle class went extinct.


Greed comes in many forms, from the politicians to the CEO's of corporations to the lobbyist that keep technology at bay to keep their cash flow coming in (example: oil companies keeping hydrogen power technology locked down and unavailable to the public to further keep the world dependent on oil).


When will change come to these issues???? Never in our lifetime.
IW Pick
User Rank: Strategist
7/9/2014 | 10:27:47 AM
Propagate wealth at the low end of the income scale
Some innovations concentrate wealth, and some propagate wealth. It's important to have a pretty wide definition of wealth, to include health and family time, access to education, and opportunity, and to include externalized costs and carbon footprint. So the bicycle propagated wealth. The sewing machine destroyed some jobs, but Singer's micro-financing initiative to help women buy sewing machines mitigated the problem for a while. The I-phone as a piece of hardware concentrates wealth, but the App Store propagates wealth.  MOOCS propagate wealth. High School robotics programs probably concentrate wealth in the long run. The current romance with innovation should be looked at as a two-edged sword and subsidy programs should try to distinguish between propagation and concentration. People should try to buy more services and less stuff, eg hire someone to mow the lawn instead of buying a lawn tractor. 
User Rank: Strategist
7/9/2014 | 10:13:41 AM
Utter nonsense
Oh how easy it is to envision a utopian future when one is so disconnected from the realities imposed on the masses by a predatory capitolistic economic system.  

What makes professments like this even more condescending and offensive is that it's the very nature of our ultra-capitolistic system that has afforded Mr. Page the ability to be so disconnected from the conditions it imposes on the rest of us.  

So, Mr. Page, instead of talk, how about taking some steps to bring this future you talk of to fruition.  Maybe you could start by eliminating your off-shore tax shelters which has enabled corporations like Google to shovel so much of the tax burden onto the commoners that they HAVE to work 24/7 just to survive, regardless of how much they may or may not want to.  

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm getting *really* tired of the demonstrated ignorance of the conditions the masses live under by the very people this society, for some reason, rewards with untold riches.  

Revolutions happen when the disconnect between the ruling class and the commoners gets to the levels we see today.  Mr. Page and his ilk would be wise to tred very lightly...  as evidenced by many of the comments lately, the smell of revolution is in the air.  
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2014 | 10:06:43 AM
Re: Yeah Sue...
I do think that in future we can't all have as much STUFF as we do now. It's not sustainable for the planet, much less dwindling income. Instead of buying a few new pairs of shoes every season because some designer says heels are out and flats are in, why not just have a couple of pairs that you really like? Instead of buying a new PC or car or tablet every year or two, buy good quality and use it for a long time. 
User Rank: Ninja
7/9/2014 | 9:39:34 AM
Re: Fight Unemployment With Job Sharing
Interesting Concept, Thomas, but as you say, it sounds a little more sci-fi than reality - at least for the near future. Most companies (not to mention employees) will scoff at the idea as a real solution, and most job regulation seems to have some trouble hitting it's intended target. For example, the recent healthcare act which mandated that employees who work over 30 hours must get health insurance casued only one outcome many places - reduce everyone's house to exactly 29. That's a bit too easy of a loophole, don't you think? We need something a little more comprehensive to fix employment problems in 2014.

Seeing the headline with 'Google CEO' affixed to the front made me thing "wow, what a strange idea... but maybe if someone like Google is behind it, it will pick up some steam." - after all, they've coined all kinds of strange employment rules, like their famous '20% rule'.  Of course, it turned out the reality is that this is not a real suggestion from the top at Google, just a pie-in-the-sky idea that was brought up during an interview; a thought exercise. If Google really adopts a policy like that, then we'll have something else entirely to talk about it, but as it stands, there's still some value in someone important bringing up the idea. At least it gets us thinking about something that's going to be a very real issue for us and our children.

User Rank: Ninja
7/9/2014 | 9:37:40 AM
I think billionaires are disconnected from reality.  If you cut the work week to 20 hours and halve the salary, the talented will just get two jobs.  Effect on unemployment -- zero.

It probably won't work even if you double salaries before cutting the work week.  The talented will get two jobs and double their income unless this is outlawed.  If not outlawed, a doubling of salary would drive jobs in the service industry as the talented enjoy more disposable income.  Travel would grow meaning lots of new unskilled service jobs.  Of course if corporations were forced to double salaries, the commensurate inflation would decimate all of this theory.

Perhaps Google should start this experiment to see what happens.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 9:35:57 AM
Re: Yeah Sue...
I notice there was no suggestion that, to help with ongoing diminution of pay for the average worker, the CEO's should pay share.  Is there a bit of hypocricy here?
User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 9:33:29 AM
Not exactly...
"That might sound like the setup for an episode of Star Trek, but it's the world Google's founders see ahead of us."


Actually, it sounds a lot more like "I, Robot".  And anyone who has read it knows that it doesn't exactly end well for us humans.
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