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The Diminishing Returns of Productivity Culture

Human productivity has a ceiling.

Culture Study

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In 2006, Karen Ho was an anthropology student at Princeton. She wanted to study the culture of Wall Street, and she understood that the easiest way to gain real access was to work there herself. She had virtually no qualifying experience, but because she was a student at Princeton — one of the handful of schools that Wall Street firms deem acceptable in their search for the ‘best of the best’ — she was able to finagle a low level position. With time, she built enough connections and trust that dozens of bankers agreed to sit with her for an interview. The resultant book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, came out in 2009.

There’s a passage from one of Ho’s interviews that, as the kids say, lives in my mind rent-free. She’s talking to a banker about his preference for the sort of work ethic you find on Wall Street:

If you go to the outside world and you start working with people, people just are not motivated in the same way. It is just a pain in the ass to get anything done in the real world. People leave work at five, six p.m. People take one-hour lunch breaks, and people do this and that and whatever. Believe me, it makes a big deal, because if you are working with people who all work real hard to do whatever it takes to get things done, it just makes things so much easier. And doing things is what makes people feel good about their life and makes them feel important. This is the whole self-worth thing — to complete and do things.

He talks a little about how he thinks workers in big corporations and the academy just aren’t as motivated — they lack ambition, or:

I think in the old days, back in the fifties or sixties, people kind of just had a set pattern of life. They went to work, climbed the ladder slowly, and did whatever they were told. I think now that people are so seduced by the capabilities that you can jump ahead and how much difference you can make, how important you can feel or whatever it is that gets you off…

He’s referring to the ‘Organization Man’ approach to work — made possible, at least for white men, by the middle-class security of the post-war period. Who needs manic ambition when you’re not terrified of falling from your class position? But then he finishes with:

It feels like now, you can get a lot done, be really productive, and it is seductive. And that is why people who have more than enough money…more than enough respect, still are involved in this at the expense of their families because they need to feel needed. And there is nothing better than to complete thing on a regular basis.

There’s something great about this dude with so much confidence in his approach to life that he doesn’t have to dress up what he gives him self-worth (“completing and doing things”) and his addiction to it. Productivity is what gets him off. Everyone else just doesn’t understand the thrill of completing things on a regular basis.

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Xerox Ad, c. 1980

I thought about this passage this week, while working on the chapter in the new book on the history office tech that promised to make workers’ lives easier, but usually just created the compulsion to do more work. Much like the digital technologies of today, these technologies — from “24 hour computer lieutenants” in a GE dishwashing factory to word processors — were sold to workers as a means of making their work simpler, more predictable, safer. Gone were the days of desperate struggle to type out a memo without typos at 5 pm, or remembering that the fourth steam gauge always read just a little off. Automated tech was going to be a worker’s best new colleague.

Automation was also positioned as a sort of cure-all for America’s industrial slump: a way to close the gap between their global competitors, particularly Japan and Germany. It promised to decrease inefficiencies and increase productivity — and productivity, as Robert MacNeil put it in his intro to an episode of PBS Newshour in 1980, was the “in” word of the year: “Everyone who thinks he knows what’s wrong with this country wants to improve productivity.”

Leaders were confused, however, when employees began to push back: who wouldn’t want their work to be easier? The problem, as documented in books like Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of the Smart Machine, Harley Shaiken’s Work Transformed, and Joel Makower’s Office Hazards, was the tech was often just as annoying, often made them feel like shit, and it made people hate their jobs.

Technology robbed workers’ of what had been highly valued physical knowledge about a job: the precise way to jimmy a stuck gear, the sound a machine makes when something’s about to break. That knowledge, accumulated over years on the job, had served as leverage over management: if the company refused to come to an agreement with their union, it would take the company weeks, if not years, to find workers with the skills to replace them. The threat of a strike had real power, because workers’ knowledge was precious.

Sensors and computers took the craft behind that work, quantified it, and automated it — a process often referred to as “de-skilling.” The worker’s knowledge was made obsolete. At the same time, managers were newly vested with quantitative authority over their employees’ work lives. They held the data, and the ability to wield it in accordance with their desires — which meant they also held the power. In this way, technological innovation wrested the most valuable elements of workers’ lives away from them, and handed it straight to management. No wonder workers resented it.

A skilled machinist, talking to Shaiken in 1985, said the experience of operating a computerized machine tool made him feel like a “rat in a cage.” Another worker, tasked with operating a robotic welding system, said “You don’t have time to light a cigarette. I’d take my old job hand welding any day.” An employee forced to monitor a numerical control (NC) system, said “I’m a worker, not a sitter. I like to be kept busy. My day goes by faster, my mind is more active. You get a little weak-minded on the NC.”

Office workers also resented the new technologies. Sure, it was great not to have to type the same letter in triplicate. But many of the machines were situated in spaces that simply weren’t designed for them: xerox machines in rooms without ventilation, word processors in spaces without proper lighting. Thousands of workers reported migraines, severe eye strain, cataracts, bronchitis, and allergies.

Back cover of Work Hazards

Leaders often attributed worker reticence to initial fear of losing their jobs: there would be a breaking in period, they’d get to know the technology and see how great it is, and everyone would gradually embrace the new normal. They brandished stats showing that automation didn’t lead to layoffs — they just led to higher productivity. America could be competitive again; why should anyone be scared?

Workers might have been initially scared that they would be made obsolete. But the animating anxiety concerned the experience of the work itself, and how effectively the gospel of productivity blinded leaders to all other concerns. In the 1980 PBS Newshour interview referenced above, journalist Lewis Silverman asks a lawyer, who’s implemented automating technologies in his firm, if he ever worries about how it’s “de-personalized” the work.

“I don’t think that’s in any way a factor in this type of automation,” the lawyer replied. “I think what we will see is that as the ability to produce documents more quickly increases and frees us to do other things, we will find that rather than doing as many documents in half the time — and then have half the time to do nothing — we will be producing twice as many documents as we did in the past, and working on twice as many transactions.”

Productivity, in other words, doesn’t make the clerk’s job easier. It doesn’t give them more time to rest. It just sets new standards for the sheer amount of work they should be accomplishing in a given day.

For a counter-argument, Newshour turned to Karen Nussbaum, the head of Working Women, a national organization of office workers. (Working Women had previously been known as 9 to 5 — and Nussbaum worked with Jane Fonda to help craft the narrative for the film 9 to 5). She emphasized that automation made workers feel like they had less control over their work, that their jobs were even more routinized, that they feel more disconnected from their colleagues, and that the technology physically affected their health. Part of the problem were the machine themselves, but an even bigger issue was the productivity they required: when you’re operating at peak efficiency, there’s no space for any of the human parts of the job. What’s more, automation was normalizing doing more work for less pay.

But again: leadership didn’t see it that way. Jack Walsh, then director of telecommunications and office services at Avon, said that some secretaries had felt empowered by the new tech, and even gained additional skills. They conducted a study that found that 10 percent of a manager’s work could be delegated to a secretary — and that the secretary’s role was thus “enhanced.”

Nussbaum’s reply was cutting: “Technology can enhance the work, but that’s not what’s happening for the large majority of office workers,” she said. “I’d be interested to know whether Mr. Walsh increased the pay of any of those secretaries who are now doing the work of some of those managers.”

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Ad for Herman Miller, c. 1984 / Susan Wood Getty Images 

This is the dystopian reality of productivity culture. Its mandate is never “You figured out how to do my tasks more efficiently, so you get to spend less time working.” It is always: “You figured out how to do your tasks more efficiency, so you must now do more tasks.” Sometimes, if you’re a Wall Street investment banker, you can complete infinitely more tasks until you have so much money that you don’t even need it anymore — you’re productive for the thrill of it, but also because you don’t know how else to gauge your own self-worth.

But the people who help that banker in his quest, whether his explicit support staff (assistants) or his implicit one (office cleaners, house cleaners, food delivery people) often have a very different relationship to productivity. It’s not pleasurable or addictive. It’s just denying the most human parts of yourself in order to survive the economic moment.

At this point, we’ve embraced so many new technologies, with so many accompanying mandates to increase our work load — but with so little attention to why, and to what end. To contribute to a stock price that benefits a select few? To check the boxes on our to do list? To spend so much time at our computers that our bodies physically ache?

We’re assisted by technologies, but we are still, ultimately, humans. The self-worth derived from simply “getting things done” is insufficient. At some point the brain and body says no. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the endless Wednesday of the eleventh month of attempting to work from home against the backdrop of a horrific pandemic. Every day we wake up and complete our tasks and grasp at peak productivity and fail and go to bed and wake up and grasp all over again. The exhaustion of continual failure compounds the exhaustion of the work itself.

We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. I think we know this. You can see it explicitly manifest in anti-hustle culture, in the renewed embrace of unions and the labor movement, in the popularity of books like How to Do Nothing and movements like The Nap Ministry. Some people have known it for a long time, some are just gradually coming to terms with it. A lot of it, I’ve found, depends on just how inculcated you were by productivity culture. Were you surrounded with examples of productivity as success? Or were the “productive” people in your life the most exhausted and pissed off? Maybe a disability meant that productivity was never an option, and you had to learn to live in a society that venerates it above all else. Maybe you always rejected it. Maybe you’re from a country that doesn’t worship growth at all costs.

Many people I know embraced it, in some capacity, because it kinda worked — it got you partway to the places you wanted to go. Until it didn’t. You started to get diminishing returns, the sort that no number of fancy planners or five minute meditations or ruthless neglect of other parts of your life could correct. This is when people burn out, quit, adopt entirely new attitudes towards what kind of work they want to fill their days with, and/or get radicalized. I feel like we’re welcoming more and more millennials, even even Gen-Zers, to this club everyday. (Gen-X knew better; I wish we millennials would’ve learned more from them, but will you please let us hang out with you now?????)

The vast majority of people are not paid enough for the productivity that is demanded of them. More money can be stabilizing — and quiet the financial stress that interferes with productivity. But it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem: human productivity has a ceiling. Technology attempts to modify that reality, but it can only do so much. The body, and the mind, begins to falter.

Capitalism does not care for that reality, or for the human wreckage it leaves behind. Leaders will seek out workers who can meet the new production quotas that technology suggests they can achieve, and dispose of them when they can no longer do so. And do not fool yourself: this is as true for factory and physical labor as it is for the office and “knowledge work.” I’m not scared that a robot is going to be able to write a blog post, or write my next book. I’m scared that I’ll be expected to write five books in the time I would’ve previously been expected to write one — and for the same amount of pay.

When Nussbaum founded 9 to 5 — and, later, Working Women — the hope was to harness the anxiety, resistance, and alienation amidst the shift to automation and transform it into labor protections for the office workers who’d long resisted unionization. The energy and organization was there, but Working Women’s efforts ran headlong into the nationwide union-busting efforts, fear of American decline, fetishization of the free market, and the early intersection of neoliberalism and postfeminism, which suggested that the cause and solution to any problem was personal.

Problem at work? Yours to fix. And when it comes to the office, the easiest, most accessible solution will always be work more. But that’s the attitude that led us here. Knowledge workers have embraced our own deskilling, and the subsequent de-valuing of our labor, and rebranded it as personal productivity. We have downloaded so many fucking apps, bought so many planners, read so many life hacks, all in service of our continued debasement.

But there’s still time to push back. You can try, and maybe even succeed, to do it yourself. But the individual, even those with the most (white, male) social capital in the workplace, can only fend off those standards for so long. We have to collectively reject the engine of endless growth, and the aspiration for infinite productivity, before it breaks us all.

You can follow Anne Helen Petersen on Twitter here, and Instagram here.

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This post originally appeared on Culture Study and was published February 5, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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