US worker productivity has been declared dead by some economists.
Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon recently argued that the productivity surge seen by American workers in the middle of the 20th century won’t be repeated thanks in part because we won’t see such dramatic technological gains in the future.
Meanwhile, Larry Summers expressed something similar with “secular stagnation,” although his argument focused more on what interest rate is need to pump up demand.
However, Deutsche Bank’s Stuart Kirk floated another much simpler idea: Americans aren’t as productive because we’re getting bogged down with too many emails.
“Coincidentally, US economic output would also be one-third higher today but for a mysterious productivity slowdown starting [in] 1971. Economists might note that was when [the inventor of modern email Raymond] Tomlinson first hit send,” he wrote in a note to clients.
Email has become an essential part of work life especially in in the services sector.
In fact, in an online survey of 400 US white-collar adult workers conducted in August 2015, workers estimated that they spend 6.3 hours a day checking emails, with 3.2 hours devoted to work emails and 3.1 hours to personal messages.
The same survey also found that nearly 80% of respondents said they look at emails before getting to the office, and 30% said they checked their emails in bed in the morning. About 50% said they check email on vacation.
Moreover, Kirk cited YouGov data that the average American is weighed down with 500 unread emails.
By comparison, you have successful folks like Warren Buffett and Ben Bernanke who steered clear of junk mail. As Kirk wrote in his note:
“As Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke used [email protected], a pseudonym to avoid ‘extraneous emails.’ Meanwhile Warren Buffett reportedly shuns email altogether and infuriatingly suffers no apparent drop in performance. Perhaps that offers a clue to email’s true cost. Given that it devours one-quarter of the average office worker’s time, renouncing email may logically boost Mr Buffett’s productivity by one-third.”
So, the basic argument here is that neither Buffett nor Bernanke waste a huge amount of time per day going through unnecessary emails, and therefore, both can use that time for efficiently and productively.
On the flip side of the argument, 92% of working adults said that the internet has not hurt their productivity at work, according to a survey by Pew Research from last year.
46% saying of them said the internet made them more productive, and the other 46% saying it has not impacted their productivity at all. (Although, perhaps it is difficult to objectively judge one’s own productivity.)
In any case, giving up email Buffett-style is probably unrealistic for many American workers for whom email is an essential part of the job.
But it still interesting to consider how email could have affected worker productivity.