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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2010-07-26 11:23:56

There's a really comprehensive (and long) article in The New York Times about memories on the Internet. It highlights one of the things that's been stewing in the back of my mind for a few months now, ever since I decided to leave my job. The basic idea is that pretty much everything should have an end, and that people should know it.

The NYT article above talks about a lot of things relating to privacy on the Internet, and discusses the possibility of implementing expiration dates on data, after which the data would no longer be accessible (page 5 if you want to skip right to it). Given the way computers work now, and how easy it is to make digital copies, implementing this is practically impossible without a ground-up redesign of a lot of things. But it's still a good idea.

The specific expiration date that was relevant to me a couple of months ago was my last day at work. I wondered what it would be like if every employee, instead of having an open-ended full-time contract, had a limited-term contract which had to be renewed when it expired. This would allow companies to let go of employees who were under-performing, which increases the incentive for employees to perform at their best. Of course, it works both ways - the employer too must do their best to retain the good employees, since they would be free to go anywhere else once the contract expired. This would increase competition on both ends, presumably resulting in better conditions for everybody.

Note that all human societies that I'm aware of already use expiration dates in some important domains. As an example, consider how most elected officials are elected for a fixed term; without this sort of expiration date democracies wouldn't work at all. Human life itself has an expiration date (although it's not specifically known, and is more variable), without which evolution (both physical and societal) would not be possible. In both cases the presence of the expiry date allows for change and improvement at a much faster pace than would be otherwise possible.

With the concept of expiration, we also have to consider the concept of renewal. A lot of human-instituted expiration dates allow for renewal, where the expiration date is pushed back. For example, it's hard to imagine a fixed-term employment contract that doesn't allow for renewal. Why is it, then, that the president of the USA isn't allowed to serve for more than two terms?

I think that the more important the contract, the more important it is that the expiration of the contract NOT be allowed to renew. Death, after all, is not a renewable expiration date. In a sense, allowing it to renew undermines the expiration date in the first place. If you know that the expiration date can be pushed back, then you're going to behave accordingly; without that "the end is near" feeling, there's no impetus to complete whatever task needs completion, and no impetus to build a legacy worth remembering. Allowing the possibility of renewal also means that there has to be an entity that decides whether or not the renewal is justified. That introduces a whole raft of problems with criteria for renewal and subjective evaluation; enough problems, in fact, that entire religions have been created on this topic. Literally.

Another area in which I think expiration dates are becoming increasingly important are laws. Things like the USA PATRIOT Act came with built-in expiration dates on some of the sections, so that powers granted to the FBI and other agencies would only threaten civil liberties until the terrorist threat was taken care of. Unfortunately, some of those expiration dates were renewed and others ignored, resulting in the occasional abuse of power. And of course, everybody's heard of some of the really out-dated laws that are technically still valid. Not all of these problems would be solved by expiration dates more widely, but some certainly would.

There's a lot of other domains out there that could benefit from having expiration dates on contracts (using the term loosely), both of the renewable and the non-renewable kind. They just need to be selected and used judiciously, which won't happen unless people start thinking of them as a tool.

Posted by varun at 2010-07-26 13:19:43
"I wondered what it would be like if every employee, instead of having an open-ended full-time contract, had a limited-term contract which had to be renewed when it expired.... For example, it's hard to imagine a fixed-term employment contract that doesn't allow for renewal."

Speaking as someone who has been on that side of the fence, there are a couple of unintended consequences that lead this to be a really bad state of being.

First, employers tend to pick up the best performing ones as permanent employees, budgets and administrative rules permitting. The leftovers are either (a) not particularly talented, or (b) much more problematically, perceived as incompetent, even if the situation was beyond their control (budgets, for instance - in my case, the donor supporting the work went bankrupt, my project was canceled, and I couldn't stay even though my manager was happy with my work, and it took years for people to get over this impression, even though it was not my fault).

Second, if you are not in your home country, or a country where you have residence, you're screwed with a contract like this. My work recently switched from open-ended to term-only contracts and the net result is that every three years you essentially have to reapply for your job. Of course, since permission to stay is tied to your job, you're in the position of having to decide on whether you want to do certain "life" things, knowing you may well be out in a few years, regardless of how well you do. For instance: should I buy a house or car? should I get into a relationship with someone whose work is tied here and cannot leave if I have to? should I send my kids to school here - should I have kids at all if I am in a position where I'm going to have to be searching for a new job three years hence? A lot of the answers are "yes, of course, cross the bridge when you come to it", but in practice, it works out that you end up spending a lot of extra time at work just proving you're good enough to keep your job, which isn't perhaps the healthiest work-life balance.
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Posted by stak at 2010-07-27 09:14:39
So with the first point, a non-renewable fixed-term contract would solve this problem by leveling the playing field. Employers wouldn't be able to pick up anybody as permanent employees; everybody would be forced to move on once their contract expired. The only thing you take with you is your evaluation/performance report.

Agreed that it introduces a bias against foreign employees when immigration status is tied to employment. That's not my idea of an ideal world though - just something else that needs to be (and will eventually be) fixed.
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Posted by varun at 2010-07-27 10:38:48
Ah, so, I misunderstood. I thought the job could be fixed, it wasn't mandatory to rotate.
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Posted by Dave Pritchard at 2010-07-27 18:03:09
Good luck with your new job! Here in Lausanne things are insanefully bad when for changing anything remotely bureaucratic, e.g. job contract renewal or apartments, at least from my perspective as a non-EU'er. If there were more artifical expiries causing even more paperwork, I would go insane! (and not have any time for real work)
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Posted by stak at 2010-07-28 22:10:22
Thanks, but I'm actually going for a masters in CS (at UW) in the fall. Sucks that there's so much bureaucracy; seems like it's the perpetual bane of people not in their "home" country. Not that that means much these days.
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