Many business school and professional development programmes are based on the same politico-economic model… one that assumes that economic growth is always for the good… that we should all seek for our organisations to become ever more productive… that individuals within them should always pull the same ‘weight’… that the most effective and efficient workers should rise to the ‘top’. Over the years, I have taught a number of time management, problem solving, decision making, project management, and personal development modules – all of which, from our economic perspective, should be on an upward trajectory.
We live in a world where technology is rapidly developing. Some say that it is a new industrial revolution. But it isn’t… There won’t be as many jobs created through this one as there were in the 1700 and 1800s. In that revolution there were many jobs being created… though, even then, the quality of life of those people who had to pursue work in the mills and factories was not always improved! This time, we are already looking at reducing the working week to four days, we have commoditised labour by moving many jobs from regular employment to the “gig” economy, and in some sectors wages have effectively been dropping down since the last economic downturn in 2008…
When I was a kid, my father worked for the local authority. He was a Highways Superintendent, responsible for most of the local council’s employees who worked outside – roadworkers, gardeners, and refuse collectors. Many of the people who worked for him were emotionally, mentally, or physically disabled in some way, or simply lacked much education for a variety of reasons. Not all, by any means, but a larger proportion than in other employers. This was intentional – society at the time felt it was right for everyone to have a sense of self-respect and to be able to contribute what they could to it. These jobs have all been ‘outsourced’ to private employers, reduced in numbers, replaced with enhanced technology, and the vulnerable workers have been lost along the way – all because we believe in improved efficiency and productivity.
Today, the definition of sustainability has shifted from considering the long-term impact on natural resources, to thinking about the future of the planet and of species – including our own. There’s a very widely acknowledged view in some quarters that our pursuit of growth and efficiency has done irreversible harm – damaging environments so that they cannot self-repair – are not, in other words, sustainable. Have we done the same for people?
Back in 2003, the Harvard Business School, conducted one of its Working Knowledge surveys, posing questions about productivity and our never ending pursuit of it. The results are here: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/can-we-have-too-much-productivity-improvement.
I’d urge you to read it, reflect on it, and form your own opinions about its consequences.