How Much Work?

God created Earth & the Universe, according to a zany old story, in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Then for centuries in the Judeo-Christian necks of the woods, many people worked 6 days a week, though some were forced to work 7 against their will. Then, in the 20th century us humans changed to taking 2 days of rest (100% increase!) when the 40-hour work week was made policy in the USA in 1940. Business worldwide now operates on a 5-on, 2-off schedule (but money never sleeps). Parenting, for most, still lasts all week.

This month (July 2014) the founders and majority-owners of Google, buddies from Stanford, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had a “fireside chat” sans fire  which touched on how much work us humans are doing (queued video), which happens to be a topic I’ve been researching recently. Here is what Google CEO Larry Page said of particular interest:

“I think like um you know if you really think about the things you need to like make yourself happy, you know it’s like housing, security, opportunity for your kids, I mean, anthropologists have identified these things. Um, I mean, it’s not that hard for us to provide those things. Like the amount of resource we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small, you know, I’m guessing less than 1% -“

(Vinod Khosla, interviewer) “Ya”

(Larry Page) “um, at the moment. So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet peoples’ needs is just not true.”

Larry Page, Google CEO, co-founder, and co-controlling owner.

Larry Page, Google CEO, co-founder, and co-controlling owner.

These eloquent words hold truths and inaccuracies. To pick it apart and get to some concluding thoughts we’ll have to venture into economics (land of dubious assumptions and bad data) and other realms. Let’s look sentence by sentence at the quoted text.

1st Sentence: “I think like um you know if you really think about the things you need to like make yourself happy, you know it’s like housing, security, opportunity for your kids, I mean, anthropologists have identified these things.”

What things do you need to make yourself happy? He seemingly assumes happiness is everyone’s ultimate goal. We’ll just let that be for now. Happiness is very subjective and it’s hard to generalize about what gets us there. Page gives examples of “housing, security, opportunity for kids,” but is there anything we would all need as given before being generally happy? How about biological needs? Basic survival requires, in order of immediate necessity: air, water, food, shelter (housing & clothing), fire (sometimes optional). With that, you can survive a while. Hopefully there are other people around to help provide these things, as well as parenting, education, health care, etc. and you can have some laughs and be pretty happy. But those basics of survival are essential to… um… survival.

 

2nd sentence: “Um, I mean, it’s not that hard for us to provide those things.”

It seems hard for many of us to just secure that stuff: get clean water, pay for food, clothing, housing, and electricity & gas (fire). Martin Luther King Jr., in 1967, stated that the USA then had enough wealth to eradicate poverty within its borders. George Orwell played with the same idea in fiction (in England) in 1949. It hasn’t happened in either country (and certainly not the rest of the world). But, theoretically, could it?

 

3rd sentence: Like the amount of resource we need to do that, the amount of work that actually needs to go into that is pretty small, you know, I’m guessing less than 1%, um, at the moment.”

He guesses the amount of work to provide enough to make people happy is 1% of the work that currently happens. The interviewer (Vinod Khosla) quickly agrees. I’ve crunched the numbers in Canada, a net exporter of food, energy, utilities, and an importer of manufactured goods but not by too much. I took total workers (17.8 million if looking at people who receive money to work – which leaves invisible parenting, caring for loved ones, volunteering, etc.) and looked at who in that group worked directly on the basics (eg, people growing food but not people working in restaurants, people working extracting oil but not those managing the oil corporation. Lots of assumptions!):

Air: 0%

Water: 0.9% to 1.7% of workers

Food: 1.7%

Shelter: less than 17%

Fire (including extraction): less than 3%

TOTAL: less than 22.5% of workers

(This uses the higher-range data set (LFS), and the the figures are slightly lower with the other Statistics Canada data (SEPH). The research I’m putting together is a work in progress. You can see its current DRAFT state, especially the “Working on survival as compared with other work” tables on pages 2 and 3. I may try to include the USA, and to look back at decade intervals to see changes over time. Thomas Piketty arrived at about the same numbers recently, and Peter Diamandis has been saying this from a hyper-optimistic perspective).

So, Larry Page’s 1% is way off but <22.5% is closer to 1% than it is to 100%, so he gets part-marks. Technology and industrialization and fossil fuel energy have combined to separate many of us from doing the work needed to get water, grow food, make clothing and shelter, etc. He doesn’t acknowledge the link of reliance on fossil fuels as essential to this system, nor the link to climate change, thereby leaving a big gap in the conversation. Environmental racism, for example, is ignored.

 

4th sentence: “So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet peoples’ needs is just not true.”

Page here is referring to what we need to be happy as “needs”. He alludes to the fact that we are working frantically, which may hold some truth. He then states that it is not true that we have to work frantically. This is correct if we are talking about basic survival needs as they are currently provided; that that requires about 22% of our work in a nation like Canada which is currently very fossil-fuel dependent with deeply engrained behaviours of rabid purchasing and disposal of material possessions (ie, consumerism). If what people need to be “happy” is to live on a healthy planet with very low levels of poverty (lack of ability to meet survival needs) then there is a lot of work to do to get there (more than 22%), not to mention the undoing of sexism, racism, colonization, etc. which are impediments to happiness for possibly the majority of the world. Work will have to look different than it does now, becoming more meaningful and connected to what people care about. This will take much effort.

 

Conclusion: Ultimately I agree with Page; our current system of work is overloaded, destructive and insane. It is unfortunate that he, as the head of an information-focused organization, didn’t have good information to talk about something serious he obviously cares about and instead made some errors and major oversimplifications. His conclusions, like more part-time jobs and shorter work weeks, are helpful but tip-toe around the issue. It seems like one line of questioning we need to investigate is, if it takes so little work to provide us with what we need (and even if it took a bit more so it was done responsibly), then:

  • Why is it so hard for so many people just to get by?
  • Who is in control here? and why them?
  • What better ways could we be organized?

We can choose whether it is just more time off that we want, or if we want do be doing different and better things, As the 40-hour work week becomes less and less normal, linear hierarchies in organizations flatten out, and GDP loses its sanctity, we’re at cool point in time to figure out how to proceed.

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