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.