In The New York Times over the weekend, Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey, contributed an piece titled "Let's Be Less Productive." In it, he criticizes the modern obsession with productivity gains, while recognizing the role it has played in increasing standards of living. He explains why productivity in the arts, services, and craft industries are necessarily stagnant—which economist William Baumol noted years ago, terming it the "cost disease" because wages would have to remain competitive while productivity stayed the same. But he cautions against increasing productivity throughout the economy because of other detrimental effects—specifically on jobs, if higher productivity is not accompanied by growth.
I have no problem with tempering the push for higher productivity, especially in areas in which it can hardly be expected. Productivity is a means to an end and therefore it is only valuable insofar as it actually serves that end. But I think there is an end which can benefit from higher productivity that Jackson doesn't see: a less work-centered conception of meaningful life.
Jackson focuses on higher productivity as a threat to full employment:
Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work. If more is possible each passing year with each working hour, then either output has to increase or else there is less work to go around. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth.
On a certain level he's right; if we produce the same amount of output more efficiently, that means less resources will be required, including labor. For people who want to work—who need to work—this is of great concern, which makes this an important matter to discuss during these dire economic times.
But more generally, we should consider if work is a means to an end or an end in itself. For most people work is a necessary means to an end, of course, but only some see it as an end in itself. (It's a cultural stereotype that Americans live to work while Europeans work to live, but it is based on a kernel of truth.) Some people find their life's meaning primarily in work, but others find it more in other aspects of life, such as service, art, family, or love. Higher productivity may result in fewer jobs, yes, but insomuch as some people find a job a burden—and have other means to support themselves, such as a spouse or a partner—they can enjoy other aspects of life. And it is higher productivity that allows them not to work if they don't want to (and don't need to).
There are other benefits to this aspect of higher productivity. It would relieve the modern necessity of the two-earner family, either allowing a two-parent family to live on one earner's income, or a single-parent family to live more comfortably on one income. And higher productivity can also—if you're so inclined—finance a stronger welfare state, to support those who want to work but can't find a job, and have no partner or other financial support. Even without growth, higher productivity enables a state to fund social welfare programs. (Just look at Sweden, where a fairly unrestrictive regulatory environment for business has led to productivty gains and growth to support their extensive welfare state.)
There is plenty of room to rethink the single-minded focus on productivity espoused by many in business and government, and at the same time to recognize that the loss of jobs it creates (in the absence of corresponding growth) has some broader societal benefits, including lessening our reliance on our jobs and careers to give meaning to our lives and relaxing the economic burden on families. Work to live, indeed!
This post was adapted from the Economics and Ethics blog.