The past decade has been terrible in terms of job growth and median wage growth, and sadly that was true even before it culminated in the worst recession since the 1930s.
But not all the news is bad. Although it’s not much discussed, this has actually been the best decade since the 1960s for productivity growth. Last year, labor productivity grew by over 4% and it has averaged over 2.5% in the preceding 10 years.
Why does this matter? Simply this: productivity, output per unit input, is by far the most important determinant of our living standards. As Bob Solow showed in his Nobel Prize winning work, the main thing that makes an economy richer is not working harder or even using more capital or other resources. Instead, the main driver is innovations in products, services and business processes that let us create more value without using more inputs. Productivity comes from new technologies and new techniques of production. The most important of these is what economists call general-purpose technologies like the steam engine or electricity. They contribute to productivity directly, but more importantly, they also spur countless complementary innovations that can keep driving productivity growth for decades.
Our era is fortunate to work with one of the most important and powerful general-purpose technologies in history, information technology, in all its forms. Some of my research suggests that IT has been driving the lion’s share of productivity growth in recent years. What’s more, there is no sign that the digital revolution is slowing. On the contrary, I think we are only in the early stages of a transformation that will be no less important than the ones engendered by the steam engine and electricity.
Unfortunately, not everyone is benefitting from strong productivity growth. In fact, many have been directly hurt as their jobs are automated. This is one of the main themes of my new ebook with Andrew McAfee, Race Against the Machine. Grappling with this paradox, high productivity but stagnating employment, is one of the great challenges for our generation.
How do you think we should address it?