Thursday, September 16, 2010

Productivity and Lifestyle - Are We Being Shafted?

If we are to believe productivity statistics it should take 11 hours of work per week to have an output that is equivalent to a 40 hour work week in 1950. It should take 23 hours per week to equal 40 hours in 1975.

I am writing this in my house, built in 1956. In front of the house is our single car, a ten year old Honda. Something seems wrong either with the statistics or with my life. Currently I am starting a new business, so I expect to be working a lot without much (any) monetary gain. That said, I have worked at least 40 hours per week for decades and I have never been four times as well off as the equivalent worker in 1950.

There are explanations (aside from the obvious one that I have been shafted for my entire adult life). Mostly these revolve around the difficulty of comparing time periods. On the measurement side, we have shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy. How do you compare my productivity as a software engineer (a white collar position that did not exist in 1950) with that of a mid level manager at a blender manufacturer in 1950. Within an industry we can more easily measure productivity gains, but as one industry becomes more productive, workers are laid off and shift to new industries.

On the consumption side, the goods and services we use have changed drastically. Instead of an expensive, crummy, black and white TV, I have a a big screen high definition TV that I can use to stream movies off the internet. Instead of a single phone line with expensive long distance, we have multiple cell phones and the internet. My 10 year old car is undoubtedly more efficient, comfortable and reliable than a brand new car in 1950. We have several computers in the house all of which are wirelessly connected to the internet.

Despite these difficulties, I personally believe the "we are all being shafted" theory. Honestly, my life is not that much different from life in the 1950's or the 1970s. My house was built in 1956 and has no air conditioning. The heater has changed several times, but is still a natural gas burning central system. My car, while of higher quality, is still just a car. I do not own that many appliances. Those that I do own are of higher quality and probably more reliable than anything available a couple decades ago, but their basic design and operation is essentially the same.

On the working side, I have always worked at a full time job, but these days most households have every adult member working outside the home for wages. In 1950 a primary white collar wage earner would have supported a household on 40 hours a week. Now we need two wage earners working close to 80 hours for my household. On top of that, many of the tasks that used to be someone else's job are now mine. For example, in the grocery store I used to wheel my cart up to a check out lane and someone would ring up my purchases. Now I have to ring it up myself. A business traveler in the 1950s or even the 1970s would have a travel agency - either external or internal - book travel. Now even highly paid executives book their own travel. White collar workers in 1950 or 1970 had secretaries for clerical work, now we do it all ourselves.

I would trade my current lifestyle for a 1950 lifestyle working 11 hours per week. It is true that I enjoy modern conveniences, so I am willing to double my work week to get some of that (computers and the internet). That brings me up to 22 hours per week. Heck, I'll throw in a couple hours for free and make it an even 24 hours of work a week - but that is my final offer.

Don't even get me started on the flying car that all visions of the future thought we would have by now.

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