Google CEO: Fight Unemployment With Job Sharing - InformationWeek

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7/9/2014
09:07 AM
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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impactnow
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impactnow,
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7/12/2014 | 3:21:42 AM
Sharing not for the young

While job sharing may be an option to combat unemployment and underemployment -it may be best suited to more established workers who have a better financial base and need flexible hours to meet demands in their private lives. For younger workers who honestly need the experience and the income it's really not the solution. Our younger generations are saddled with more education debt earlier in life and need full time incomes to be able to move forward with their lives and support our overall economy. The work share issue also doesn't address worker benefits-- this would create a large portion of uninsured workers.

Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
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7/9/2014 | 6:33:15 PM
Sharing work a future necessity
In the future people will share work both by necessity and choice. They'll try to compensate for the limits on income by finding ways to forestall some of the costs of modern life. They will barter for skills and services with friends and through online exchanges. They'll use more computer skills to attend class, shop and recreate. They'll also spend more time training youth to use components to build their own basic electronics -- computer, music player, phone. They'll work growing food, fixing bikes, repairing a window or roof, generating energy. In the necessity of doing so, they'll end up doing something else they always meant to do -- live and work more closely together, proliferating local skills and founding neighborhood businesses. But it probably won't work out without first encountering painful disruptions and lessons.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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7/9/2014 | 5:27:48 PM
Re: Nice Joke
Indeed. I know some affluent people who profess to know nothing about taxes or stocks, but who nonetheless do very well because they pay the right people to handle their finances. A person of lesser means can still make his or her own opportunities with this sort of stuff, but speaking on the whole, to pretend that someone making $50,000 or even $150,000 is living in the same tax reality as someone earning $10 million is bonkers.

 
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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7/9/2014 | 5:16:44 PM
Re: Disconnected...
" 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."


Bingo. For example, how do you like your chances of starting, say, a streaming video service if Verizon gets its way? And even if the net neutrality issue gets favorably sorted, it's only one example.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2014 | 5:12:28 PM
Re: Disconnected...
"I think billionaires are disconnected from reality." There's actually a fair amount of research to that effect. Also, I agree with your overall sentiment.The most ambitious people would absolutely hold multiple jobs in this new Page-inspired society. Even today, I know a lot of well-educated people who, out of finanical necessity, have spent the majority of their 20s and early 30s working multiple jobs. In the Page vision, that effect would only be greater.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2014 | 5:08:19 PM
Re: Yeah Sue...
One trend I've noticed too is an increase again in middle management. After all the layoffs in the 90s, i'm seeing several companies pad their management layers again. 
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2014 | 5:06:53 PM
Re: Nice Joke
>The tax rate on income over $375,000 is 35%. 

I believe it has risen to 39.6% but nonetheless the wealthy tend to have ways to reduce their income through deductions that aren't available to the less affluent.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2014 | 5:03:38 PM
Re: Yeah Sue...
I concur, Lorna, though I think you bring up another quandary: While our current rate of material consumption isn't sustainable, a lot of people's jobs rely on that stuff. If we lose some jobs to technology and other jobs to environmental sustainability or the results of wealth polarization, the social implications can't be overstated.

That said, a lot of people dismiss the "tech will eat jobs" argument by pointing out that new technology also breeds new jobs. For at least the short term, this trend will clearly continue. There were no smartphone app developers when I was in college, but now it's what half the students out there aspire to be. Page seems to think technology will accelerate to the point that this is no longer the case, hence his argument for shared work, but I wonder if his vision is a legitimate eventuality, or a sign of a lack of imagination on his part.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
7/9/2014 | 4:51:20 PM
Re: Yeah Sue...
@Craig,

I'll actually give Google credit for setting a good example in this regard; it compensates its employees well.

But I sympathize with your overall sentiment. The notion that wage stagnation is merely a byproduct of a self-regulating free market is pretty quixotic. Still, even if Page wasn't having the conversation you might have preferred, he's raising an important question. I'm not sure I have much enthusiasm for Page's solution, but technology will certainly obviate many jobs among both low-wage and high-wage earners. Assembly line workers will be replaced by robots, doctors will be forced to adapt to algorithms that diagnose diseases better than they do, and so on. It's important for the present that we get on the right page socially regarding the Randian ideals currently governing wages, but it's important for the future that we think about the logical extension of technology's accelerated pace.
Shane M. O'Neill
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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.
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