The relentless drive for productivity may also have some natural limits. Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth.What, then, should happen when, for one reason or another, growth just isn’t to be had anymore? Maybe it’s a financial crisis. Or the need to rein in growth for the damage it’s inflicting on the planet: climate change, deforestation, the loss of biodiversity. The result is the same. Increasing productivity threatens full employment.
By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates. At first, this may sound crazy; we’ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency. But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year?