The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Where has all the productivity gone?

Between 1870 and 1970, American productivity grew by leaps and bounds. This is primarily due to electricity, running water, and the replacement of manual labor with machines. But after 1970, productivity growth slumped. Indeed, some economists even think the golden era of American productivity growth is over, and the best we can hope for in the future is mere ‘sustainability’.

What about the computer, one might ask? Surely the fact that I can do instantaneous research, email all my coworkers and put together a presentation in a fraction of the time it used to take me counts for something – and, to be sure, most productivity gains since the 70’s have been due to our increasingly digital life. They merely pale in comparison to former gains. Are computers simply not as enabling as electricity once was?

What gives?

We simply don’t care any more

Those who might see this as an intrinsically American problem, i.e., say that the American golden age has ended, may be on to something. Our stalling productivity growth is not in our stars but in our selves. I maintain that the productivity growth is there – or at least, the potential for it – but that we seem disinterested in it.

Two steps forward, one step back

If you walked through an office in the 1950’s, when productivity was still alive, what would you see? Drafting tables? Memo boxes? Perhaps even a paging system or a typist pool. We can see gross improvements on all these things since then. But what will you not see today?


As hem lengths on dresses have risen, walls have fallen in the office. Instead of actual rooms with doors, today’s white-collar workers should be happy if they don’t have to share a cube. In Tom DeMarco’s book, Peopleware, he cites much of the organizational literature about the productivity sucks that modern cubes provide. One should even be lucky to have a cube all to their own, with walls you can’t see over, as more and more places are adopting cubes whose furniture seems to belong more in Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompa offices than an actual corporation. Indeed, we’re even seeing the return of the bullpen – no walls, no separation, just desks and happy workers working at them.

You can come close to practically doubling a knowledge worker’s productivity by giving them an office with a window – and the fact is offices with windows don’t really cost that much more than cubicles.

I see this pattern over and over – one technology enabling our productivity growth, while our very own culture seems to hinder it. Why these shots to productivity are tolerated is the topic of a completely different blog post.

The 60 hour work week

Henry Ford, who along with unions ‘invented’ weekends, had a vexing problem. How long should the work week be? How long should he ask his factory workers to man the lines? Certainly, at some point, they end up slowing down, with decreasing returns per hour worked that isn’t worth the extra hours pay. But how many hours was that?

40 hours

Time and again this result has been shown true for manual labor. For knowledge work, however, peak product, that is, the maximum amount of output over all (not simply per hour), is seen more around 35 hours. It’d be one question on why the market hasn’t driven down knowledge worker’s hours to this more optimal amount, but a completely different question as to why many knowledge workers now put in 60-80 hours in at the office per week.

Again, as to why this is happening is a social commentary for another time, but we can at least talk about the surface cause:

“By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve

hours a day.”

-Robert Frost

One addendum I’d like to go ahead and add here is that your profession is not an exception. No… no it isn’t. Stop arguing. Many people, especially who hold their own profession in high esteem, maintain that their job takes that long to complete. That they are simply that dedicated. They’ve fooled themselves, and in many cases are actively costing their companies money, or in the case of certain professions, risking lives.

Parkinson’s Law


                Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Where does our measly 2% or 4% of productivity a year come from? From a potential 8% or more in actual productivity growth, combined with a -4% of additional non-value-added work being done per person.

The reason you didn’t see so many presentations back in the 1950’s is because presentations took a lot of effort, and many were obviously not worth the effort. Now the effort is so low we’ve forgotten that some presentations are never worth the effort. We’ve gotten such incredibly powerful tools at our disposal, so quickly, that we haven’t actually figured out how to use them effectively. Indeed, teams of hundreds, enabled by email, instant messaging and mobile phones, can now do projects that used to take a team of five or six. They somehow manage to take longer, and obviously cost more, than the original small team.

The fact of the matter is, so long as we are stuck in a chair for 8+ hours a day, we have no incentive to find a way to perform work quicker than that. Moreover, in the off chance that we do find a better way to get work done, we are punished by additional boredom. We eventually fill this time with completely non-value added drivel, in the vain hopes that maybe it will come in handy, or at least it will make the day go faster.

Quick – where are you reading this? Is it at work? No, this isn’t my attempt to make you feel guilty. It’s my humble opinion that the most of us working folks are good, diligent professionals. In other words, if you are surfing the web at work, it’s most likely because you have nothing better to do. We need more people like you. If we could keep busy little bees on Reddit or YouTube rather than dreaming up new ways to word smith that document no one will ever read, we’d all be happier people.

It’s not getting better

Telecommuting, results oriented work, Getting-Things-Done systems – all of these are potential sources of productivity that you are lucky if you actually get full use out of. There just isn’t that much interest in increasing productivity. Things seem to be getting worse, not better – cite the aforementioned return of the bullpen. Until we realize that we’re the problem, and that we inventive Americans are still very good at finding productive ways of doing things – we’re just not very good at using those productive things – then we’re going to continue to descend into mediocrity.

To close on this dreary subject, I remember growing up in the 80’s. My dad was one of the first lucky souls to be able to telecommute. His employer, the Southland Corporation (now 7-11), issued him a computer terminal and modem. He spent many days at home, hacking away at mainframe COBOL, around his children and wife. Happy days.

Today, my sister now works for the 7-11 corporation. She routinely pulls 80-hour workweeks, and would be sacrificing her career if she didn’t. She gets pulled into all day meetings, politicking, and other time sinks we use to fight the boredom. She word smiths for hours.

 Indeed, it seems as if 30 years of productivity gains due to computers, the internet, mobile phones and other technologies have done nothing more than given us additional time to make other’s lives a living hell at work.


October 3, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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