Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Productivity and Progress

This morning, as I chatted with a couple of moms at my youngest son's bus stop, they were talking about the struggles that one of them was having with the whole "going back to work" thing. With a kindergardener and a preschooler, there was a job opening that she was struggling with. Should she take it? Should she schlep across the metro area for hours every day to go to a part-time job...one that might sprawl out into a full time job? Her life was already full of kids and household and pets, and the prospect of cramming work into it as well seemed intimidating. Yet it felt almost compulsory.

I'd actually been thinking about that over the last few weeks, particularly as more reports have come out describing the job market as the equivalent of a stagnant, algae covered economic pool. As workers are driven to be more and more productive in order to hold on to jobs, and businesses streamline their processes to make themselves more efficient and competitive, those pressures would seem to lend themselves to...well...fewer jobs. Or fewer total hours worked, rather. Yet we continue to scramble to produce more so that we can buy more.

Back when my parents were in the workforce, the vision of the American workplace of the future was rather different. Increased productivity would result in...more leisure. More taking it easy. If advances in technology allow you to produce in four hours of work what used to take eight hours, then you don't put in twelve hours of work to produce three times as much. The sane thing to do would be to take the remaining four hours and go for a nice walk in the woods. Or play with your kids. Or find some unmet need in the community and volunteer your time to help meet it.

We haven't done that.

Instead, particularly in my area, not only do we work longer, we now are ALL expected to work longer. Looking up and down my street of humble ramblers, I see households that used to only require one full time income to maintain. In those houses, there are now families that struggle to make ends meet on two full time salaries. The stressors that this produces are considerable. They take considerable toll on relationships, on parenting, and on marriages. Heck, on our happiness as human beings. We fret, and we struggle, and we worry, and things come apart.

So...why are we going backwards here? Why, if we are so much more productive, are we so incapable of living lives in balance? It all depends on how you define progress, I guess.


  1. I have a suspicion that women entering the work force (that is the paid work force) has something to do with this. Since the expectation grew that both husband and wife would work the salary paid to husband or wife has dropped in terms of buying power

  2. @ Pastor Bob: I concur that this was likely a factor. It's not, to my unabashedly progressive eyes, that women should not have entered the workforce.

    It's that both the workforce and the market haven't constructively adapted to that reality. Instead of liberating us to have two half-time incomes and time for family, faith, and community, the market has responded by absorbing the efforts of that labor. Homes cost more. Cars cost more. And we've defined up "our daily bread" to include a choking cornucopia of possessions.

  3. Things 'cost' more because the dollars we're using to buy them are worth less than they used to be. The dollar is becoming less 'efficient' because it can be created from thin air (a keystroke on a computer). Thus, the more dollars we create*, the lower the value of each individual dollar. So while salaries have gone up in nominal value, they may not be keeping pace in real value.

    I think we're still working the same amount of hours as before but we've delegated our tasks to people who: prepare our food, educate our children, shoe our 'horses', etc. We rely on hundreds of little 'servants' each day--and pay for it with inefficient dollars.

    *[Most people don't understand how our culture of debt has increased the money supply. Seems to me that back in the olden days people used to delay gratification, save for major purchases, and all that jazz. They didn't go blowin' their life savings at universities neither!]