Dear (Prospective Employer),
Thank you for your monetarily very generous offer of employment! Honestly, it’s not obvious to me how I could spend $X a year, as I am currently living quite comfortably on about one Nth of that amount. Actually, that’s not entirely true; I’m sure I could spend it all if I got a mortgage on a big house out in the suburbs, bought a fancy car with which to commute to work, ate out frequently, and had a few kids I planned to put through college. However, I prefer to live simply in a small home, cook my own meals, bus or bike to work, and I may very well choose not to reproduce. I also prefer, in my all too limited time on Earth, to experience the wilderness that still remains in the world, and the myriad human cultures, cuisines, and languages that have emerged in the last 50,000 years. Those experiences will not come easily sitting in front of a computer in an office park, and they often cannot be had on weekends or whirlwind tours. Thus, I am concerned about the following potential scenario with your offer of employment as it currently stands.
I will very likely make the maximum allowable contributions to my (401(k) | 403(b)) retirement account and IRA, and still have roughly $Y left over to invest in a taxable account each year. However, because my ultimate goal is to accrue a diversified portfolio of interesting memories and life experiences, and not to accumulate wealth, I will at some point make the choice to convert that excess income into opportunities for non-work experiences. Because my time on Earth is finite, it makes no sense for me to defer those opportunities indefinitely. I could be hit by a bus or discover that I suffer from a terminal illness long before reaching retirement, and so from my point of view it makes sense to pursue variety in the relatively short term.
It’s important to me that this not be construed as my being uninterested in working for you. On the contrary, I am very excited about the possibility of being employed at (your company), helping to make progress toward a more sustainable and durable human civilization, and I hope that this work will make up a significant and stimulating part of my life. At the same time, I can’t imagine doing the same thing, no matter how stimulating, 50 out of 52 weeks of the year for very many years. Under your normal schedule for accruing vacation time, my only real option will be to eventually quit. The most logical timing for that would be upon fully vesting in the (pension | employee stock purchase) plan, N years after commencing my employment, but it could be sooner, depending on the timing of my partner’s opportunities for non-work experiences. Another way to say all this is that the combination of $X and two weeks vacation each year is far from my Pareto frontier in salary-vacation space. I realize of course that two weeks of paid vacation is normal for offers of new employment in the US. Obesity, diabetes, grossly negative household savings rates, four hours of television per day, vehicles that get 18 miles per gallon, and poorly engineered energy guzzling commercial buildings are also normal in the US. I would like to suggest that a better arrangement between you and your employees would be generous opportunities for unpaid time off, in combination with more modest salaries.
I’ve already explained why I think this arrangement would be superior from my perspective as an employee, but I really do think it’s potentially to your advantage as well. A major enterprise risk in any knowledge based industry is loss of expertise, and discontinuity of institutional memory. Companies regularly have to re-learn things they already knew, at great expense, because they’ve lost key personnel. Alternatively, employees who know they are irreplaceable, or at the very least, who know they hold disproportionate value to their employer, are able to command higher salaries, and have significant economic incentives to ensure that they remain relatively irreplaceable, which puts them at odds economically with their employer. Many businesses understand that this dynamic exists and at least in theory, strive to avoid vesting too much organizational value within any individual employee. In practice this is not easy, because ensuring that multiple individuals are capable of performing every task, and understanding every aspect of the organization, often appears superficially to be a wasteful duplication of effort when resources are stretched thin, or the organization’s operative time horizon is short.
Now consider an alternative arrangement, in which each employee is present for only 9 months out of each year, and occasionally absent for four consecutive weeks. In such an environment, duplication of knowledge and expertise would be absolutely imperative from the employer’s point of view. At the same time, employees who want to be able to take their time off without disrupting operations and inconveniencing their managers and coworkers would have a large incentive to fully and continuously document and communicate the work that they do. The systems and procedures which would be developed and put in place to deal with these regular absences would also make the organization resilient against employees leaving, and against unplanned staffing losses due to illness, disability, death, pregnancy, etc. Currently the possibility of such an arrangement would also serve as a valuable recruiting tool, and potentially enhance employee retention. Ultimately it is a question of which kind of employee duty cycle produces the best value for the organization: relatively short, continuous employment followed by perhaps sudden and permanent loss, or potentially indefinite, intermittent employment and a high degree of institutional continuity.
The arrangement I’m advocating would involve doing the same amount of overall work with more employees. There are undoubtedly some fixed per-employee costs, and while things can be done to minimize overhead, like dynamically allocating workspace instead of allowing each person persistent possession of their cubicle, I wouldn’t expect a simple linear relationship between time worked and pay received, e.g. 75% salary for 75% employment. The actual numbers would depend on the exact costs of employment, but I think I could be happy indefinitely with something like 2/3 pay for 3/4 time work.
Eagerly awaiting your response,
Zane A. Selvans, Ph.D.