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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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User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 3:32:09 PM
Re: Yeah Sue...
The whole thing about companies need to pay these unconscionable rates to their execs is a fraud, perpetrated by the CEOs and high executives who sit on each others boards of directors, and religiously vote in the pay "requisite" to retain their "highly skilled" managers.  In fact, they are simply lucky people, who had connections, and who vote for each others' pay hikes, effectively screwing their shareholders as well as their employees in a demonstration of demented greed. 

User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 3:25:10 PM
Reality Check!
You want to lower the Non-Livable wage even more?  People can't even afford their own residence as it stands now.

America = Powerless People with Zero Independence

This economic system is a long-term joke.  So are the economists that support it.

Let this priviledged oligarch cherish their partnership with the federal government.  

Hope for non-participation and social unrest.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 2:59:19 PM
With progressive taxation
those working half time won't be so badly dinged. Combine it with some (not all) of the collaborative consumption ideas, such as carsharing services and less expensive travel, and you've got a pretty decent lifestyle, though it may be more difficult to save.

That's the red herring in all this, part of the goal should be more public participation with some of that freed up time, but we seem instead to be heading to a plutocratic world. 
User Rank: Moderator
7/9/2014 | 2:55:31 PM
Re: College Grads--Zero future
@Bowl2300 In theory, you're right in that the current system does make conditions that are ripe for a "revolution" of sorts. But, quite honestly, people today are too lazy to start a revolution. They want to do it Tea Party style, which is complain about how bad you've got it, blame it on someone else and not really solve anything. 

We are where we are for a lot of reasons, including the fact that a lot of wealth building models just don't work anymore. But a key reason is the fact that a lot of people failed to keep their skills current, ran out of opportunities and are now angry about it. Add to that, a lot of people who did play by the rules, got a college degree and tried to better themselves, are finding themselve subject to immense wage pressure that makes it hard for them to keep pace with cost of living rises. 

For better or worse, one of the few things that we can control that will help get control of this issue is reducing the growth of certain costs, including health care and taxes. But we've got to do it in a thoughtful way that's about more than just screaming about what someone else has. Perhaps it's penalizing people for leading unhealthy lifestyles, dramatically retooling the cost structure of our education systems, etc. Really, this is our only option at the moment because while economic growth has certainly improved, it's not keeping pace at the rate we need to remove the slack in the labor market.
User Rank: Moderator
7/9/2014 | 2:49:31 PM
Re: Disconnected...
@Jason The issue that people often overlook with entrepreneurship is, while it's easy to start your own business, replacing the income that you had at your full-time job including benefits, with the income from your own enterprise is extremely difficult. 

Small businesses are hamstrung by a lot of factors, including pricing pressure, higher costs, and on and on. While you certainly do get some benefits from running your own business, a suggestion that entrepreneurship is an answer to our economy's ills is short-sighted. Yes, it's a great thing, but starting a business for the sake of it solves nothing until it's successful and is responsible for innovation. Since two thirds don't make it past five years, it's easy to see there's not the success and innovation coming out of small businesses en masse that some would have you believe.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 2:43:14 PM
Job Sharing already tested - didn't work
France tested that in 2000: lowered the working week from 39 to 35 hours. It didn't add more jobs, and the unemployment stayed at the same level.

What's interesting about this experiment is that France's economic growth didn't slow down, on the contrary...
User Rank: Strategist
7/9/2014 | 2:21:15 PM
Re: Disconnected...
"Some will get a job, but many will freelance and start their own business, so the effect is much greater than you illustrate. "

The idea that a significant number of the population can or will start their own businesses is as naive as Mr. Pages comments.  We used to live much closer to that ideal... until the rise of enormous corporations.  The likes of Walmart, Target, ShopRite, Stop & Shop and others put countless small stores out of business.  Newspapers and the media industry as a whole has been consumed by 2 to 3 vast conglomerates.  

For any of these things to actually come to fruition would almost necessitate the dismantling of the very structure which has allowed people like Mr. Page to accumulate such wealth and power - our ultra-capitolistic economic system.  And since the very people who the current system benefits almost exclusively, hold almost exclusive controll over every aspect of our government, that is unlikely to happen.  

User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 2:05:47 PM
Typical out of touch corporate exec
Dear Mr. Page,

Let me put this in a vernacular that you may better understand. While you have reached the Self-actualization level on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, most of your employees barely make it into the Love/Belonging level. It is not your fault, it merely is what it is when it comes to corporate employment.

Only an uber rich corporate executive would make a statement like you have. All of YOU people have nothing in common with the rest of us little guys. YOUR dorm days of trying to make $5-10 last a whole week ended a LONG time ago and YOU simply do not remember that experience.

Don't take this the wrong way, you run a great corporation well, please continue to do so. But please do not tell us how you would cure all the social ills you simply have no concept of any longer.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 1:42:59 PM
Job Sharing is not the answer
At first, I thought this article was a throw-back from 1955 when computers would make 'ordinary' work disappear.  That didn't happen and neither will the current evolution of job sharing.  I don't know about the rest of the world, but in the US, when you hire someone part-time (e.g. 20 hours/week) they are not eligible for 401k, vacation, paid sick leave, or medical/dental/vision insurance.  So, not only have you cut my salary in 1/2, you have removed any incentive that companies now offer.

CEOs can talk about this new model but they seem to forget that not everyone is a 'desk' job.  The plumbers, electricians, service workers of the world will still be working full time because anything less puts them at a poverty level.

User Rank: Apprentice
7/9/2014 | 1:42:31 PM
Who pays my mortgage?
This is from the leader of one of the largest corporations in the world?  So I do half my job, get paid half my salary, does that mean Mr. Page will pay half of my mortgage and half of my bills?  Or do I get foreclosed, evicted from my house and live on the street so Mr. Page's Utopian vision can proceed? Can I get half of a McDonalds job then?  I guess Mr. Page doesn't really mind because if he shares his job (yeah I'm sure that will happen) he still will bring in HALF a gazillion dollars, so why should he care?  I'm really trying to get out from under Google's thumb, but it does seem near impossible
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