Productivity is up -- oh no!

A productivity sign

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: We've been talking for what seems like forever about rising worker productivity. Companies getting more out of their employees without having to hire more people. And the trend continues.

The Labor Department said today productivity was up at an annual rate of more than 2.5 percent in the last quarter of 2010 -- that's a pretty fast clip. Technology gets some of the credit, but it appears the American worker has stepped up, once again, and become even more efficient.

Marketplace Janet Babin has more on when and if businesses will hit a productivity wall and have to start hiring.


Janet Babin: So this Labor Department report confirms what many of us can feel at the office: Longer days. Fewer colleagues.

Mark Vitner works too hard as a senior economist at Wells Fargo.

Mark Vitner: We're producing as many goods and services today as we were prior to the recession. But we're doing it with 7.5 million fewer workers.

And, let's not give productivity short shrift. Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Frankel says this report is a positive economic sign.

Jeffrey Frankel: In the long run, there's no question whatsoever that strong productivity is what we want. It raises our standard of living, keeps cost of living down, raises our real income.

But if you've been squeezed out of a job, more productivity is not what you want to hear about. Mike Konczel with the Roosevelt Institute, says there's a downside for all workers.

Mike Konczel: People are working harder at their jobs, which in theory is good, but they're not being paid any more. There's probably a quality of life trade-off; people are spending less time with family, their friends, their communities.

What if we forced companies to start hiring? A silent slowdown. Like, if I just decided right now, I'm not going to finish this report...

Maybe that's too unproductive. Wharton School professor Jonah Berger says a break, though, might be a chance to rethink whether work is such a virtue.

Jonah Berger: Man I'm really working hard, I must be a good person, and it's like, really? Is that, is that really the right measure of a person, how hard you're working? And in some sense, it's not clear that it's always better to be working harder.

Cutting out early today -- in an effort, of course, to reduce high unemployment -- I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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