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Americans are becoming less productive, and that's a risk to the economy

Brian Bouser, 22, says his recent experiences in the workforce have prompted him to go into business for himself.
Brian Bouser
Brian Bouser, 22, says his recent experiences in the workforce have prompted him to go into business for himself.

All of the quiet quitting rolling through the country is starting to make some real economic noise.

Data now shows that the U.S. workforce is not as productive as just a year ago — it seems people are not producing as much in the hours between clocking in and clocking out each day. In the end, this could have a profound effect on the country's well-being, according to economists.

For Brian Bouser, 22, questions about how much effort to put in at work began when he received a text in the middle of art history class at the University of Louisville last year. His boss at the car rental company where he made $25 an hour informed him his pay was going down to $13.50 an hour, without any explanation.

Bouser learned that all of his colleagues had seen their wages basically cut in half, and at a moment when companies were desperate for workers and pay was rising across the country. Still, he said that in his short time in the American workforce, where he'd already been laid off from another job at the beginning of the pandemic, he knew this is just how it goes with companies.

"I used to think having a job would make me secure," said Bouser. "I no longer think that."

Major swings in the job market led to major ennui

An economic ennui has settled in among workers after the experiences of the last few years, said Julia Pollak, chief economist with ZipRecruiter, and that ennui is showing up in the numbers.

Nearly 20 million people were laid off in a matter of weeks as the pandemic took hold, regardless of whether they had strong work ethics, good performance or loyalty to a company. Then the economic winds shifted just months later, and companies were suddenly desperate to hire. Firings and layoffs reached historic lows. Existing employees were often worked to the point of burnout, newbies with less experience were brought on at a higher wage and employers overlooked things that could have cost workers their jobs in the past.

Workers came away from all of this feeling like the connection between working hard and being rewarded was broken, Pollak said.

"That's really discouraging to top performers," she added.

The result: This year, productivity — the measure of how much stuff companies produce for each hour we work — has seen the biggest drop on record.

Productivity is down 4.1% on an annualized basis, the biggest decline since the government started keeping track of the number back in 1948. Since then, U.S. productivity had been on a steady upward slope. Until now.

Pollak said there are likely a number of factors contributing to the drop in productivity, but she believes burnout, frustration and, yes, ennui are part of it. And if this continues, the consequences could be very serious.

Productivity is the fuel of our economy, said Pollak, and if it continues to decline, the U.S. economy will shrink, quality of life will go down, opportunities will dry up, and innovation and ideas will go elsewhere.

Japan, for example, has seen a years-long drop in productivity due to a population decline. The result has been two decades of economic stagnation.

Looking toward a less-productive future

Ennui can create a very bad cycle that is hard to turn around, said Pollak. Productivity, then, may continue to decline.

"Once you've had that sort of Ecclesiastes moment of thinking everything is futile and pointless, how do you get people believing that hard work pays off again?" she said.

Ecclesiastes is the book in the Old Testament that begins: "Meaningless! Meaningless! ... Everything is meaningless."

Still, the frustration and ennui workers are experiencing could lead to major changes, as it did for Bouser, who said all the time he spent driving the cars to the car wash, bringing them back, and renting them out now does seem meaningless.

"The job was, basically, you drive for six hours a day in a circle," he said. "And at the end of it, you've just gotten nowhere."

The more Bouser thought about his experiences in the workforce, the more he realized that company loyalty felt like a liability.

"My favorite saying is 'the gold watch days are over,'" he said.

Bouser explained that whereas people used to work at a company for 40 or 50 years and retire with a pension and gold watch, now loyal workers just get a text from their boss informing them their pay is cut. Deciding he wanted no part of that, Bouser opted out and got his real estate license as soon as he graduated. That way, he can work for himself and buy his own gold watch.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.