People need to work less than 1 percent of the time they do to fulfill their basic needs — housing, security and opportunities for their children — Google cofounder Larry Page suggested recently, reviving a Utopian vision that has long been a staple of sci-fi as well as technologists’ vision of the future.
“The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people’s needs is just not true,” Page said.
However, we need to give people things to do because they need to feel that they are needed, wanted and have something to do.
That does not relate to the real world, and “that’s why we’re busy destroying the environment and other things maybe we don’t need to be doing,” Page suggested.
One solution could be to have everyone work a little less so that everyone is employed.
“I don’t think that in the near term the need for labor is going away,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin responded right off the bat.
Labor “gets shifted from one place to another,” he pointed out.
Not Today, Thanks
Page’s suggestion does not make sense at this point in the economic cycle, John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told the E-Commerce Times.
Conditions “have improved significantly over the last two to three years,” and as the economy continues to expand and gets closer to full employment, “the last thing we want to do is cut workers’ hours,” he pointed out. “This is a strategy to employ when the economy stumbles and when unemployment rises.”
That approach has been taken in France, which adopted a 35-hour work week in 2000 for precisely that reason.
An Unhealthy Idea
“This is often the problem when the very rich get out of touch with the working class,” growled Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “They have no recollection of ever worrying about money and make stupid suggestions like this as a result.”
Given Google’s push into home and car automation, the suggestion “is tactically self-serving,” Enderle told the E-Commerce Times.
A massive increase in people who aren’t working, [together] with an equally massive decrease in discretionary income “will not be healthy for the company, politicians or billionaires who make that happen and remain in close proximity with those pissed-off workers with not enough to do,” he said.
The increase in part-time workers in the U.S. is “more firms attempting to get more work for less money,” and workers have to get multiple jobs and work longer hours to break even, Enderle maintained.
Smells Like Engineer’s Spirit
Using partial or flexible employment to put currently underemployed or unemployed college grads to work to gain experience, as British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has done with Virgin Startup, “is a decent approach,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.
However, it “doesn’t touch, let alone address, systemic issues like structural unemployment, a nationwide living minimum wage, those who have given up looking for work, or the fact that Page’s own industry treats workers over 40 as undesirables,” King told the E-Commerce Times.
Page’s suggestions “smell like an engineer’s solution to a highly complex, often illogical set of problems,” he said.
Coming to America
Nonetheless, Page’s scenario “has been coming for some time,” Glen Hiemstra, founder and CEO of Futurist.com, told the E-Commerce Times.
Both standard of living and productivity have gone up over the years, and “we could — and increasingly do — provide all of this with fewer and fewer people required to produce the goods and services,” Hiemstra pointed out.
However, for Page’s vision to become reality, we would have to provide a basic living stipend to everyone, he suggested.
It is “nearly impossible to imagine this ever being done politically,” Hiemstra acknowledged, but “the relentless progress of automation and productivity matched against population increase makes it ever more likely.”
“I can imagine how some industries or individual companies might try [Page’s idea] as a way of scouting new talent,” King said. “From a practical standpoint, that’s the job creation equivalent of spitting in the ocean.”