A Productive Mystery
Reading the Washington Post this weekend, Robert Samuelson’s column caught my attention. It was titled, “Solving the productivity mystery,” and it focused on a trend that both concerns and puzzles economists: productivity has stopped growing.
This statement requires some unpacking.
In economics, productivity, roughly defined, measures the ratio of output to inputs. The more valuable output you can produce for the same input costs, the better your productivity.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expends a lot of effort to carefully measure this metric over many different industries in our country as it tends to be a strong indicator of practical things that people care about, like wage increases.
Back to the Samuelson column…
- From 1995 to 2005, labor productivity increased by an average of 2.5% a year. As Samuelson pointed out, this translates to wage increases of roughly 25% over that period. This is good.
- From 2010 to 2015, however, the average increase has only been 0.3% a year. If this persists through 2020, it will translate to a “puny” 3% wage increase over the decade. This is not good.
The puzzle, as mentioned above, is understanding why productivity is slowing.
There are no shortage of hypotheses. Samuelson reviews several in his column, including Robert Gordon’s claim that serious innovation is fading (c.f., Gordon’s big deal new book), and Samuelson’s own theory concerning the inefficiency of duplicating sales efforts online and in physical stores.
An Intriguing Angle
I’m not an economist, so it’s with trepidation that I throw one more potential contributing factor into the mix: email.
Hear me out.
The period between 2010 to 2015 is when smartphone use transitioned from popular to ubiquitous (I bought my first smartphone in 2012), and with this transition new expectations about constant connectivity migrated from the social sphere to the workplace.
Not surprisingly, many in the knowledge sector (and beyond) talk about the last five years as a tipping point where their annoyance with their various inboxes metastasized to deep, soul crushing resentment.
With this rise of constant connectivity — as I’ve documented in detail — a drop in cognitive ability is absolutely unavoidable.
This would be okay if our ability to think clearly and efficiently didn’t matter for the bottom line. But it does!
The main capital expenditure in the powerful knowledge sector of our economy is human brains: by reducing their ability to effectively produce valuable output, wouldn’t we expect a slow down in labor productivity?
(It’s here that many connectivity apologists began to talk about the soft opportunities and advantages of increased information and connection. But labor metrics are harsh. An active presence on social media or rapid email response times often do not measurably lead to more production of unambiguously rare and valuable output.)
Some modest support for this thesis shows up if you look hard enough (and embrace sufficient selection bias):
- The March productivity numbers, for example, show that the “business” category (which includes knowledge work) has a notably smaller increase in productivity than the various manufacturing industries measured.
- Tier one knowledge companies like Google are increasingly having to rely on “sprints,” in which a development team drops off the grid, and works night and day to hit a self-imposed deadline. I suspect — though can’t claim with confidence — that these sprints became necessary because without permission to disconnect from the message whirlwind, the average developer is too riddled with distraction to produce good code anywhere near cognitive capacity.
I don’t want to fall into an econometric rabbit hole here, so let’s treat Samuelson’s column mainly as a prompt to return to a pertinent issue: Just because constant connectivity has become the standard approach to work doesn’t mean that it’s good.
The time has come, in other words, to step back from this inbox-driven world we’ve created and ask with clarity and humility: does this make any sense?