The World Needs 1.8 Billion Jobs—But What If They Already Exist?

What if we were able to monetize the information we put on the Internet? A revolution in which people are paid by the networks they use could herald a new economy for the world’s jobless.

Even as technology contributes to the everyday quality of our lives, robots and software are eliminating human jobs at an unprecedented rate, leading to a "great decoupling" of output/wages and jobs/income that’s becoming increasingly problematic. Technology-driven unemployment is getting worse at an accelerating rate. Meanwhile, Gallup’s latest World Poll demonstrates a growing demand for "good jobs" that transcends borders, cultures and languages. In a nutshell, the acceleration of automation-driven unemployment is both likely as well as broadly undesirable.

Gallup Chairman/C.E.O. Jim Clifton blames much widespread social unrest, instability and war on the lack of formal, 30 hour a week jobs, arguing: "If you were to ask me, from all the world polling Gallup has done for more than 75 years, what would fix the world—what would suddenly create worldwide peace, global well-being, and the next extraordinary advancements in human development, I would say the immediate appearance of 1.8 billion jobs—formal jobs. Nothing would change the current state of humankind more."

So, where on Earth can we find the 1.8 billion (and growing) good jobs that would fix the world?

It turns out some likely solutions have been emerging all around us.

With the release of the globally popular The Third Wave in 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler presciently predicted a massive shift from industrial to information-driven economy and the blurring of traditional economic roles resulting in a new class of participant he labeled the "prosumer" (producer plus consumer).

We’ve clearly been transitioning to an info-driven economy in which knowledge workers are in high demand. Much of this has been catalyzed by new classes of systems like social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, G+), social-driven search (Google, Bing, Siri), citizen science (SETI-Live, Cell Slider) and big data that increasingly harness consumer-generated data while returning value to users in the form of organized information, entertainment, and occasionally cash (Google is paying select users up to $25 in Amazon gift cards to monitor Internet activity, Viggle is paying people for their TV viewing data). The result? An emerging prosumer class.

While today’s prosumer jobs pay little and fall into the informal category, there is reason to believe that they could grow in volume and value—rapidly. As accelerating change enables companies to get better at capturing, storing, transferring, processing and valuing user data, the prosumer role is poised to proliferate and scale.

New interfaces (iWatch, Google Glass, BCIs, Facetime, Kinect, Surface, search engines), sensors (FitBit, smartphones, data recorders in cars, reactive billboard cameras, camera-equipped drones), compression technologies, and faster computer processors are accelerating human-driven input. Social media, search, info-warehousing, banking, research companies and universities are collecting and mining vast amounts of this input. These developments are expanding the market for data that can be more easily applied across industries and converted into money, which in turn is increasing the demand for prosumers that can input, sort and output this data.

Over the next decade, companies appear ready to pay more users more money for real-time and longitudinal life-streaming, driving, brain, health and genetic data; for product reactions, media reactions, geographic scans, species scans, general behavioral data, and so forth. More informational value will be captured on-the-fly as people socialize, consume media, learn, play games, navigate the world, or even sleep. Considering these near-term likelihoods, we can confidently predict that data-driven, prosumer-centric capitalism will steadily augment or even grab market share from the traditional 9-to-5, single-role, industrial economy.

A more extreme version of this scenario is that this transformation of capital flow and economics, something that Toffler explores in detail in Revolutionary Wealth, could become an outright boom. Billions of formally unemployed or underemployed humans could prove necessary for the rapid development of new technologies spanning medicine, entertainment, transportation, farming, warfare, search and artificial intelligence.

My confidence in this trend is bolstered by a macro trend: the observation that the billions of people on Earth have and will continue to find it in their interests to centralize information into an "Everything Map" (which Google is already consciously building), a much needed social tool and critical central component of accelerating change.

But what about the 1.8 billion jobs that people need now? In one sense, they’re already here. Facebook’s 1.1 billion users, YouTube’s 1 billion monthly users, Google’s 1 billion monthly users, all exchange their data for access to structured content. Baidu, Bing, Twitter and Yahoo together boast a formidable prosumer base of 2 to 3 billion. Though these systems currently offer prosumers little in value, Google’s Screenwise initiative, which pays some users up to $25 in Amazon Gift Cards, is an important early signal of a looming shift.

A Google user is estimated to bring the company about $43 in annual revenue per user (ARPU), a small but steadily growing figure. As Google and other prosumer-based companies increase both total revenue and ARPU, it will make business sense to attract and retain users by paying them a cut, thus keeping participants happy and establishing a sort of Prosumer Equilibrium.

Prosumers and their content will go "where [they] are wanted and stay where [they] are well treated", as banking master Walter Wriston observed about various forms of capital. The result could be an all-out war for prosumers in which more and more value is returned to users.

At first the money shared with prosumers will be a trickle. I can imagine $100 per prosumer per network by 2018. But as extraordinary, revolutionary wealth is generated, as convergent accelerating change suggests, those numbers could grow quickly, perhaps exponentially. In 10 years, the relentless expansion of info-driven networks could provide billions of prosumers access to a variety of income flows that, when cobbled together, could equate to the formal jobs Jim Clifton says the world needs now. It’s a scenario worth contemplating.

In the meantime, tech-driven unemployment, inflation, and population growth are likely to exacerbate our present-day problems before the same technology comes to the rescue. The world will have to negotiate ongoing instability, conflict and economic shocks as it waits for prosumer pay flows to manifest and grow. We may well be on the cusp of one of the most stressful, and most transformative, decades in human history. One thing we can be absolutely sure of: there will be growing pains.

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  • Sunho Lee

    I don't believe the world needs more jobs at all...we have mechanized agriculture and much work through machines and computers...in fact we are in the future envisioned a long time ago, but instead of people having leisure, as you might think, the 1% gets ever wealthier on the labors of the rest of the people.   

    If the resources of the world were evenly distributed, I firmly believe the average human would only need to work a few hours a week, and most of that work would be mental or social as opposed to physical labor.  

    How many people work on one mega-farm that produces food for millions?  20?  30?  The average ocean cargo vessel (the big ones) have a crew of 7 men.  Microsoft has around 80,000 employees worldwide and most of them aren't even programmers...their software runs most of the world's computers.   Robots work in car factories.  

    I just don't buy it.  The politics of the world have created a slave class that directly funnels it's output into hands of the very few.  

  • Robert Rich

    It is an interesting theory, but I'd have loved to see more explanation of where the money to buy the products advertised on Google will come from when an otherwise unemployed person is paid to surf the web.  The reason why eyeballs are appealing to these firms is because they are attached to a wallet with a real ability to buy whatever they have on offer.

  • GinnyHolbert

    Interesting but not very convincing scenario. Consumer data is certainly valuable, but billions of people have proved willing to give up their info for free--either through ignorance, apathy or in exchange for convenience, sociability 
    or some other perceived value. If that's going to change, what's the driver of that change? 

  • Dean

    I believe I have the solution to breaking monopolistic practices and the creation of more job worldwide. I just have to find the investor to pay for developers to code the solution for a year to then sell it to Microsoft, Apple, Google etc. So I offer $1,000 to any serious proven investor to give me the time to present to them. I will give them $1,000 if they do not like my system.

  • Tinyplasticgreyknight

     I'm not sure any of the companies listed would be interested in "breaking monopolistic practices", if you know what I mean ;-)

  • moladi

    Back to basics - Maslow's Food and Shelter - We do Shelter @moladi:twitter to create employment and develop skills

  • Prokofy

    Alvis, you know that most of these networks and worlds (like Second Life) have a "power curve" where 10% of the people provide the content for everyone else, and 2% are providing really professional content. These companies need content, but they need it for free to maximize their California business model (free accounts, upload content for free without regard to IP rights, force IP owners to chase them). They are not going to part willingly with cash, and the $25 gift certificate of Google is laughable (where's the link where any of us could get this? It's not serious).

    In fact, except for Second Life or a few other similar virtual worlds, I don't know of any community online where you can make content and get paid for it. The world doesn't work that way.

    The "mechanical Turk" jobs on Amazon pay pennies. None of these are wages even for people in the Third World.

    You simply don't explain how the synapse jump between today's pennies and tomorrow's living wage is going to occur, when if anything, more networks and more users and more free uploads means more flattening of the pennies to be wrested now even from Google ads.

    Every experiment along these lines has flopped, i.e. Jason Calacanis' Mahalo or before that, the idea of paying news linkers:


    As it is now, the model of engineers getting paid for apps like FitBit means that there is a producer class that stands in the way of the masses who would make the "prosumer" cash -- they're the 2%. Why would FitBit's developers make a system that has then Google playing their customers, and not them, for their personal data. Only app developers have an incentive to be rewarded and to block others from being rewarded.

    There will never be any prosumer pay flows. There will only be war in cyberspace and on the earth, first among engineering classes of different countries, then between the mobs and the engineering classes who are starving them even as they scrape their data.