Productivity, growth and wellbeing – the awkward triangle

Two recent developments have tickled this cynical old veteran of office work. There was a successful trial of a four day working week. And there is general excitement at the latest thing in Artificial Intelligence – ChatGPT (generative AI, apparently). Both seem to point to improved productivity. But if that’s true it doesn’t follow that economic growth will result.

To my cynical mind office work can be divided into two broad categories: problem-solving and bullshit. The latter seems to take up most of people’s time: talking about solving problems rather than actually solving them. In any office-based environment remarkably few people in organisation actually seem to be productive problem-solvers. The others supervise, communicate, convene meetings, make calls, write presentations, set deadlines, monitor project plans, strategise and so on. Doubtless a lot of the activity I am describing as bullshit contains an element of necessary work, but it often doesn’t feel that way.

So it’s no surprise that some businesses have found that they can reduce office hours without impacting adversely on output when implementing a four-day week. The saving seems to have been in the region of four hours in a five-day week – four eight-hour days making up for five seven-hour ones, for example, though that’s a saving of three hours. ChatGPT, meanwhile, automates the production of bullshit. It manufactures a lot of plausible but unreliable verbiage that you would be unwise to stake much on. Since producing such verbiage is what so many people spend such a lot of effort doing, it’s not hard to see why people are getting so excited. Both ideas offer ways of spending less time doing pointless things. So productivity should improve.

But, of course, it is much harder to see how either invention increases the production of useful things. The idea of a four-day week isn’t to give people the time for side-hustles. The idea is that people get more time for unpaid domestic things (“leisure” is probably an mis-description of this). The study reported high levels of improved wellbeing among employees – which was seen as the main benefit. As for ChatGPT, it’s not meant to solve tough problems or make hard professional calls – the things you most want service providers to do for you – or provide the warmth of human company, though doubtless some people hope that it will help robots to do that job, it sounds a poor substitute.

Doubtless I exaggerate. But there is a more substantial point here. A lot of improvements made to workplace efficiency – improved productivity in economic speak – won’t have much impact on the sort of economic growth you can measure in money and tax – the holy grail for economists and politicians. But that doesn’t mean that people won’t be better off. Wellbeing and per capita economic income or consumption are quite different things. Some people have been saying this for quite a while – Professor Richard Layard for one, and he still is. I met him when I was part of a Liberal Democrat policy working group looking at the issue more than a decade ago. Lord Layard’s big idea is to use self-reported wellbeing as a measure of progress. I am more sceptical – I don’t think the measure is robust enough to do heavy lifting, though it is interesting nevertheless. Still I wish politicians would take up the mantra of improving wellbeing a lot more. The Lib Dem policy paper I co-authored was adopted as official policy and then forgotten. But people are voting with their feet. If growth is slowing because people are opting out of the money economy and improving their health and wellbeing, then that’s to be celebrated. Economists rarely consider this possibility, though. And Conservatives who advocate cutting taxes don’t suggest this so that people can afford to work for fewer hours – though this could be the result. Indeed they think it will increase GDP rather than reduce it.

In my youth I remember a story of some western development experts and going to an African rope factory. They gave them a machine that improved output per poker ten-fold. A year later they returned and were surprised to find the factory empty. “Why aren’t people working,” they asked. “Well, we finish the production in an hour, and then everybody can go home,” was the replay. Doubtless the original story was play on African stereotypes, but even at the time, we weren’t clear the the joke was supposed to be on.

The goal of advancing wellbeing while economic growth remains lacklustre is a perfectly feasible one. Improvements to workplace organisation and continued automation have their part to play. But public services and infrastructure can be better directed towards this goal too. And political reform to reduce the feelings of powerlessness will also help. This remains a long way off – but eventually public pressure will force it. If the four-day working week starts to take hold, it will be a major step forward.