The conventional wisdom is that labour productivity is the lifeblood of modern economies. Getting more work out of each worker – or, increasingly, each machine that replaces a worker – is how companies gain the edge that's so crucial in this age of global competition.
Or is it? In a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, Tim Jackson asks: “Has the pursuit of labour productivity reached its limit?”
Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, gives greater productivity its due. He says it has “lifted our lives out of drudgery and delivered us a cornucopia of material wealth.” But he points out some unacknowledged costs – among them, our addiction to growth.
What, then, should happen when, for one reason or another, growth just isn’t to be had any more? Maybe it’s a financial crisis. Or rising prices for resources like oil. Or the need to rein in growth for the damage it’s inflicting on the planet: climate change, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity. Maybe it’s any of the reasons growth can no longer be safely and easily assumed in any of today’s economies. The result is the same. Increasing productivity threatens full employment.
Valuing 'time and attention'
Jackson points to one approach to this problem: a drastically shorter working week, essentially spreading the available work out among more workers. While this has merit, Jackson says, he offers another approach; shedding the obsession with ever-greater productivity. One place to start, he suggests, is to recognise that key sectors of the economy – medicine, education, social work – are actually harmed by too much efficiency.
What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Royal College of Nursing in Britain warned recently that front line staff members in the National Health Service are now being “stretched to breaking point” in the wake of staffing cuts, while a study earlier this year in the Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures. Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.
Jackson points to craft and culture as two more areas where boosting productivity can actually harm the final product: music, art, literature, he says, require “time and attention”.
In the end, Jackson suggests, “avoiding the scourge of unemployment may have less to do with chasing after growth and more to do with building an economy of care, craft and culture. And in doing so, restoring the value of decent work to its rightful place at the heart of society.”
Readthe entire op-ed ...