American Productivity At Record Levels -- With Income And Wages In The Basement

First, go look at these charts. Now read this, and then this Mother Jones piece: Webster's defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and it used to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the

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First, go look at these charts. Now read this, and then this Mother Jones piece:

Webster's defines speedup as "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay," and it used to be a household word. Bosses would speed up the line to fill a big order, to goose profits, or to punish a restive workforce. Workers recognized it, unions (remember those?) watched for and negotiated over it—and, if necessary, walked out over it.

But now we no longer even acknowledge it—not in blue-collar work, not in white-collar or pink-collar work, not in economics texts, and certainly not in the media (except when journalists gripe about the staff-compacted-job-expanded newsroom). Now the word we use is "productivity," a term insidious in both its usage and creep. The not-so-subtle implication is always: Don't you want to be a productive member of society? Pundits across the political spectrum revel in the fact that US productivity (a.k.a. economic output per hour worked) consistently leads the world. Yes, year after year, Americans wring even more value out of each minute on the job than we did the year before. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Except what's good for American business isn't necessarily good for Americans. We're not just working smarter, but harder. And harder. And harder, to the point where the driver is no longer American industriousness, but something much more predatory.

Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.

SOUND FAMILIAR: Mind racing at 4 a.m.? Guiltily realizing you've been only half-listening to your child for the past hour? Checking work email at a stoplight, at the dinner table, in bed? Dreading once-pleasant diversions, like dinner with friends, as just one more thing on your to-do list?

Guess what: It's not you. These might seem like personal problems—and certainly, the pharmaceutical industry is happy to perpetuate that notion—but they're really economic problems. Just counting work that's on the books (never mind those 11 p.m. emails), Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn't solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time (PDF), and paid maternity leave. (The only other countries that don't mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland. U-S...A?)

To understand how we got here, first let's consider the Ben Franklin-Horatio Alger-Henry Ford ur-myth: To balk at working hard—really, really hard—brands you as profoundly un-American. Who besides the archetypical Japanese salaryman derives so much of his self-image from self-sacrifice on the job? Slacker is one of the most biting insults available in polite company.

And so we kowtow to—nay, embrace—a cultural maxim that just happens to be enormously convenient to corporate America. "Our culture has encouraged me to only feel valuable if I'm barely hanging on to my sanity," one friend emailed as we were working on this article. In fact, each time we mentioned this topic to someone—reader, source, friend—they first took pains to say: I'm not lazy. I love my job. I come from a long line of hard workers. But then it would pour out of them—the fatigue, the isolation, the guilt.

I think I was ahead of the curve on this one, because back in the 1980s, during the Age of Reagan, I lost every shred of anything resembling company loyalty and started telling my friends: If you're not paid for it, don't do it. Even today, I'm amazed at the number of people who refuse to go out for lunch, instead eating at their desks while checking their email and working.

I also told my friends, "Don't have higher standards for your work than your boss does." Meaning, if your boss doesn't think strongly enough about getting something done to hire additional people or pay overtime to get it done, why should you break your back trying to do it?

Because if there's one thing I know, it's that bosses rarely appreciate all that extra effort. Instead, they nod and say to themselves, "See, I knew they could do it." And then the next thought: "So why don't they work that hard for me all the time?" It's a no-win game.

I can understand why people feel they have to do that now, because we're back in the Gilded Age and we're supposed to be grateful to have a job. But really, why should you be? They should be grateful you're still vulnerable enough to be exploited while they make record profits.

About Susie Madrak

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