Google chief executive Larry Page says we should all work fewer hours, and -- like most people -- I love the prospect.
"The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true," Page said at a recent event organized by the venture-capital firm Khosla Ventures. He was joining his voice to that of another business icon, Richard Branson, who has long championed part-time employment. What they propose, however, would require a complete overhaul of the way governments redistribute wealth: Having people work less would mean instituting some form of universal basic income.
Page believes in "giving people things to do" because they tend to be unhappy otherwise, but he is convinced that satisfying humanity's basic needs doesn't require everyone to work all the time. Do 600,000 Chinese people really have to die from overwork every year, for example?
Said the Google co-founder: "You just reduce work time. Everyone I've asked -- I've asked a lot of people about this. Maybe not you guys, but most people, if I ask them, 'Would you like an extra week of vacation?' They raise their hands, 100 percent of the people. 'Two weeks of vacation, or a four-day workweek?' Everyone will raise their hand. Most people like working, but they'd also like to have more time with their family or to do their own interests. So that would be one way to deal with the problem, is if you had a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek. And then, if you had slightly less employment, you can adjust and people will still have jobs."
Page seems to be unconcerned about people not being able to afford those shorter hours and longer vacations. Page is worth $32.7 billion, after all, and Google pays its employees 25 percent more than the average market rate. Branson, worth an estimated $5.1 billion, also skirts the issue when he calls on the government to subsidize the hiring of two part-timers to replace one full-time worker: In Britain, that costs about 20 percent more.
In effect, creating a mostly part-time workforce is the solution long recommended by the New Economics Foundation, a London think tank devoted to creating a sustainable society and environment: Just cut the working hours to 21 hours a week, it says.
The thinking behind that is that if the shorter workweek becomes law, workers will have the bargaining power to extract more pay from employers. When France cut the workweek to 35 hours in 2000, that is more or less what happened, but few countries have France's powerful unions, and the tide is running against them anyway. People at Google know at least one reason why: Sergey Brin, the search giant's other co-founder, said at the same event as Page that he thought machines would continue displacing human workers from a growing number of jobs.
NEF admits its proposal could work only if it was coupled with "more progressive taxation." A state-guaranteed universal basic income has been tried before, in experiments during the 1970s. They worked surprisingly well, although back then, neither robots nor China were much of a threat to jobs. Derek Hum and Wayne Simpson revisited the data from these experiments in 1993. They found that receiving a minimum income from the state only made American men reduce their working hours by 6 percent a year, compared with 19 percent for their wives and 15 percent for unmarried women. In Canada, reductions were even smaller: 1 percent, 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
At the same time, quality-of-life measures improved significantly. Evelyn Forget showed in 2008 that while a universal basic income experiment, called Mincome, ran in the Canadian town of Dauphin in 1975-1978, high school enrollment rates increased, accident and hospitalization rates dropped, and women started giving birth later in life because they could afford more schooling.
Last year, Swiss activists collected the requisite 100,000 signatures to hold a referendum on universal basic income of $2,800 per month for everyone in the small nation. The vote has not been held yet and the proposal will probably be defeated: Older, conservative voters rejected a higher minimum wage proposal in May, making it clear they disapprove of egalitarianism. The idea is worth exploring, however, if only because it may prove more beneficial and possibly no costlier than current, cumbersome, fragmented, badly administered and nontransparent Social Security systems.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Moscow-based Bloomberg View contributor and writer.