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U.S. Productivity Gets a Frightening Wake-up Call
Tuesday, March 29, 2011 - 12:00am
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Did you read that item in the paper last week? An air-traffic controller apparently fell asleep at Reagan International Airport in Washington, leaving two planes to land without ground guidance. The controller, now suspended while the incident is investigated, was on his fourth consecutive overnight shift. He was the only one in the tower—which is now routine at that hour, it seems.

It’s not an isolated incident. There was a near-miss at Kennedy in January, apparently once again because of overtaxed air-traffic controllers, and federal authorities report a general rise in mistakes recorded by ground-control employees. In the past few weeks we have read about three major bus crashes on American highways due to driver fatigue. These are the iceberg’s tips. What is happening to American employees?  

The U.S. has long been pleased to lead the world in labor productivity, the measure of economic output as a ratio of work expended to achieve it. Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics gave us the latest numbers: productivity in American manufacturing rose by 6.9 percent last year, down a percentage point from 2009 but still making the U.S. the world’s number 1. Extraordinary, considering the economic conditions. For the sake of comparison, most other nations registered declines in productivity due to the persistence of recession in 2009 and 2010. 

Here’s the question: Productivity gains of the magnitude Americans register are not always and automatically desirable, especially if the underlying statistical cause is counter-productive to economic growth.

Employment in the U.S., as we all know, is trending gently upward. The latest figures are due April 1, and they will probably show more gradual gains in the number of new jobs available and a marginal decline in the number of unemployed. But the larger picture counts, too. Just about the time those BLS stats were released, we also learned that the U.S. surrendered 3.4 million industrial jobs in the first decade of this century. There are 2 million fewer jobs in America today than there were ten years ago. This is the context in which the productivity gains are achieved, year-in, year-out.

A study by the New Economics Foundation, a British think tank, postulated last year that the 40–hour work week would make better sense if it were a 21–hour week. “A much shorter working week could help to tackle a range of urgent and closely related problems,” the study observed. It then named a few: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, and so on. On the positive side of the ledger, it said, “We’d have more time to be better parents and better citizens. And we could even become better employees: less stressed, more in control, happier in our jobs and more productive.”

Such is how people are beginning to think abroad. Less stress, more control, more productive: One wishes that study could be distributed to each member of the air-traffic controllers union as food for thought. Except, of course, that there is no such union anymore.

A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.