Productivity's down, but can it recover?

There probably isn't a long-term drop in productivity.

The standard explanation for the divergence between the (quite good) employment data and the (abominable) GDP data is that productivity has, for whatever reason, plummeted.

Various explanations have been proffered. It may be that the productivity slump is specific to this recession, and is caused by the government's desperate desire to "rebalance" the economy from the public to private sectors. If it's achieved this by laying off a lot of productive workers, they will find themselves working less well in their new jobs in the private sector, and so there will be a productivity slump – even while employment goes up.

Alternatively, the productivity slump might be a short-term effect of the slump. In this recession, for whatever reason, the drop in demand didn't lead to people laying off workers, but instead caused them to keep them on in the hope that the slump would end and they could start using their slack capacity again. This is the preferred explanation of Free Exchange, which writes:

Supporters . . . argue that high inflation doesn't mean there is no capacity in the UK economy: recent high inflation was down to a rise in commodity prices and the VAT increase; it has since dropped. Business surveys are often unreliable and don't account for what happens when demand picks up. The financial crisis doesn't explain everything: look at the USA and Spain. These countries have had much stronger productivity growth. Indeed, Bill Martin and Robert Rowthorn, of Cambridge University, have lent much support to this "temporary" explanation in a May publication. They show that the shift in jobs from high- to low-productivity sectors only amounts to a 1/4 percentage point of the productivity shortfall.

Then, of course, there is the argument that there isn't actually any problem at all. The FT reports

The single biggest puzzle for economists is the fact that the GDP data simply do not tally with the message from the labour market which is that employment, and the number of jobs, are growing. “It is difficult to reconcile the weakness of today’s [Wednesday’s] official GDP data with any other indicator of economic or labour market activity,” said Kevin Daly, economist at Goldman Sachs.

Mr Daly noted that in the three months to May, employment rose by 0.6 per cent or 182,000 jobs while the unemployment rate fell by 0.2 percentage points to 8.1 per cent. That, he said, was consistent with annualised GDP growth of 1.0 to 1.5 per cent for the second quarter.

It's Goldman Sachs versus the ONS. Of course, last quarter it was Goldman Sachs versus the ONS as well, and the ONS were very definitely proved right. Don't expect much different this time.

Osborne isn't too happy. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.