Americans are becoming less productive. It’s a risk to the economy: NPR


Brian Bouser, 22, says his recent experiences in the job market inspired him to go into business.

Brian Bouzer

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Brian Bouzer

Brian Bouser, 22, says his recent experiences in the job market inspired him to go into business.

Brian Bouzer

All the quiet abandonments crossing the country are starting to make real economic noise.

Data now shows that the US workforce isn’t as productive as it was just a year ago – it seems people aren’t producing as much in the hours between in and out each day. Ultimately, this could have a profound effect on the country’s well-being, economists say.

For 22-year-old Brian Bouser, the questions about work effort began when he received a text in the middle of an art history class at the University of Louisville last year. His boss at the car rental company where he was earning $25 an hour informed him that his salary was going to drop to $13.50 an hour, without any explanation.

Bouser learned that all of his colleagues had seen their wages virtually halved, and at a time when companies were desperate for workers and wages were rising across the country. Still, he said that during his short time in the US labor market, where he had already been laid off from another job at the start of the pandemic, he knew this is how it is with business.

“Before, I thought having a job would make me feel secure,” Bouser said. “I don’t think about that anymore.”

Major fluctuations in the labor market have caused major annoyance

An economic boredom has set in among workers after the experiences of the past few years, said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, and that boredom shows up in the numbers.

Nearly 20 million people were laid off within weeks as the pandemic took hold, whether they had a strong work ethic, good performance or loyalty to a company. Then the economic tides turned a few months later, and businesses suddenly desperately needed to hire. Layoffs and layoffs have reached historic lows. Existing employees often worked to the point of burnout, less experienced newbies were hired at higher pay, and employers were unaware of things that might have cost workers their jobs in the past.

Workers walked away from the whole feeling as if the link between working hard and being rewarded was broken, Pollak said.

“It’s really disheartening for high achievers,” she added.

The result: This year, productivity – the measure of how much stuff companies produce for every hour they work – has seen the biggest drop on record.

Productivity is down 4.1% on an annualized basis, the biggest drop since the government started tracking that figure in 1948. Since then, US productivity has been on a steady upward slope. So far.

Pollak said there are likely a number of contributing factors to lower productivity, but she thinks burnout, frustration and, yes, boredom are some of them. And if this continues, the consequences could be very serious.

Productivity is the fuel of our economy, Pollak said, and if it continues to decline, the US economy will shrink, quality of life will decline, opportunities will dry up, and innovation and ideas will go elsewhere.

Japan, for example, has experienced declining productivity for years due to population decline. The result was two decades of economic stagnation.

Towards a less productive future

Boredom can create a very bad cycle that’s hard to reverse, Pollak said. Productivity could therefore continue to decline.

“Once you’ve had that kind of Ecclesiastes moment where you think everything is futile and pointless, how do you get people to believe that hard work pays off again?” she says.

Ecclesiastes is the book of the Old Testament which begins with: “Without meaning! Without meaning!… Everything is without meaning.

Yet the frustration and boredom that workers experience could lead to major changes, as was the case for Bouser, who said that all the time he spends driving cars to the car wash, returning them and to rent them now seemed meaningless.

“The job was, basically, driving six hours a day in a circle,” he said. “And in the end, you got nowhere.”

The more Bouser reflected on his experiences in the job market, the more he realized that corporate loyalty was a liability.

“My favorite saying is ‘the days of the gold watch are over,'” he said.

Bouser explained that while people used to work at a company for 40 or 50 years and retire with a pension and a gold watch, loyal workers now receive a text message from their boss telling them that their salary is reduced. Deciding he didn’t want to be a part of it, Bouser pulled out and got his real estate license as soon as he graduated. This way he can work for himself and buy his own gold watch.

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