Google's Larry Page talks of killing the 40-hour work week

In an interview, he takes on unemployment and the anger between tech-haves and have-nots

Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page said we may someday see more part-time work weeks than we do today.

Page and Google co-founder Sergey Brin held a sit-down fireside chat with Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, late last week at a Khosla Ventures summit.

The on-stage conversation ranged from comments about an early opportunity to sell the company to a new battle between the tech-haves and have-nots. And after talking about machine learning and machines taking on more jobs once held by humans, the conversation swung around to an issue that seems close to his heart - not everyone needs to work a 40-hour work week.

"I totally believe we should be living in a time of abundance," said Page. "Think about what we need -- housing, security, education for our kids. The amount of resources and work to do that is pretty small. I'm guessing less than 1%. The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is not true."

Part of why most people want to work a 40-hour week is more about social needs than financial ones, according to Page.

"A lot of people aren't happy if they don't have something to do," he said. "They need to feel needed and wanted...."

In a theoretical part of the interview, Page also said he would tackle unemployment by trying to get companies to hire two part-time workers instead of one full-timer.

"That way, two people have a part-time job instead of one having a full-time job," said Page. "Most people, if I ask them would you like an extra week of vacation, 100% would raise their hands. Two weeks or a four-day work-week? They'd raise their hands. Most people like working but they also want more time with their families or their interests. We should have a coordinated way to adjust the work week."

He did not say he would be taking that tack at Google.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said of course it would be nice to work less and for companies to employ more people. But that doesn't solve all the problems.

"I can see value in two people getting work experience and competitiveness, but it doesn't solve the problem of not being fully employed," he added. "It's not like rent is half as expensive if you are half-employed."

The comment could also fuel the growing anger in the Bay Area between the tech-haves and the have-nots.

"It is a good example of reinforcing a belief that they haven't worried about paying rent or filling the refrigerator for a long time," said Moorhead. "This is out of touch with your average Google user and comes off as a bit idealistic."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said Page sounds like he's living in, or at least envisioning, a utopian world.

"Page's strategy sounds a lot like the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where they constantly allude to a society where automation has taken away the need for humans to work for the necessities of life," said Olds. "Like the show, Page also skips over the inconvenient details like how well part-timers will be able to live on half salaries, particularly in a place as expensive as Silicon Valley."

The idea, though, might fly with Americans who've been struggling to find work.

"This probably isn't going to go down well with their full-time employees, but it might win them some fans with the unemployed," added Olds. "There's another angle to this as well, part-time workers typically don't receive full benefits, which could be a very large savings for the corporation."

If that wasn't controversial enough, Page took on the resentment that non-techies, specifically in the San Francisco area, have toward those working at major tech companies like Google and Facebook.

Page did not blame himself or lay it at the feet of his company, as many in the San Francisco area do.

"This kind of thing is a really a governance problem, because we're building lots of jobs, lots of office buildings and no housing," Page said. "You also have a lot of people who are rent controlled, so they don't participate in the economic increase in housing prices. It actually hurts them. It doesn't help them. I think those problems are more structural and very serious problems."

Page and Brin also took some questions on a time back in 1997 when they, along with their early partners, considered selling their page-ranking technology.

Ultimately, they weren't offered enough money for the deal. But Page said it went beyond the money.

"The reason I think we really didn't sell the company was because we talked to all these search companies and they weren't that interested in it," said Page. "We thought, Why would we go work in a place that doesn't believe in search.

"Ultimately, for me it was about...wanting to do something in that area and it didn't seem like it was going to happen in those organizations."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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