THR Web Features   /   September 28, 2021

The Problem with Productivity and the Good Work of Love

Setting limits and envisioning hope.

Alan Jacobs

( Clark Young via

Two essays on work appeared last week, one in the New Yorker by Cal Newport and one in the New York Times by Jonathan Malesic. The differences between them are noteworthy.

Newport begins his essay by noting considerable pushback from his readers against his emphasis on “productivity”—after which he simply doubles down on that term and its associated concepts. His pivot from acknowledgement to reassertion is rapid:

It’s understandable that authors such as Headlee, or the commenters on my essay, have become frustrated with the lionization of “productivity”: we’re exhausted and are fed up with the forces that pushed us into this state. But, before we decide whether we need to dispense with the term altogether, we should briefly revisit its history. The use of the word “productive” in an economic context dates back to at least the time of Adam Smith, who used it in The Wealth of Nations to describe labor that added value to materials. According to Smith, a carpenter transforming a pile of boards into a cabinet is engaging in productive labor, as the cabinet is worth more than what the original boards cost. As the formal study of economics solidified, “productivity” gained a more precise formulation: output produced per unit of input. From a macroeconomic perspective, this metric is important, because increasing it produces surplus value, which in turn grows the economy and generally improves the standard of living. On long timescales, improvements in productivity can be greatly positive. Writing in 1999, the management theorist Peter Drucker noted that the productivity of the manual worker had grown fiftyfold during the last century. “On this achievement rest all of the economic and social gains of the twentieth century,” Drucker concluded. In other words, the increase in productivity is why today most Americans own a smartphone, while a century ago they didn’t have indoor plumbing.

If you accept that increased productivity helps the common good, the question becomes how to reliably achieve these increases….

Now hang on just a minute, Professor Newport. (Newport teaches computer science at Georgetown.) The passage begs more questions than it answers. “Output produced per unit of import” may be a “more precise formulation” of productivity in some contexts, but not in all – perhaps not even in many. What are the inputs and outputs of a psychiatrist? Of a philosopher? Would you really want to calculate the productivity of a painter by looking at the number of paintings completed—or, worse yet, the total sales of those paintings—in proportion to money invested in paint and canvas plus labor (calculated as some randomly chosen amount of money per hour)? Picasso may be a greater painter than Vermeer, but if so, that’s not because he painted more; and even to say simply that he was a more productive painter than Vermeer seems quite obviously to be a category error. The whole world isn’t comprised of Spacely Space Sprockets and Cogswell Cosmic Cogs.

Similarly: “On long timescales, improvements in productivity can be greatly positive.” Can be, yes—but that doesn’t mean, as Newport thinks it does, that “increased productivity helps the common good.” The problems with this claim are so obvious, the counter-examples so easily imagined, that it seems silly even to mention them. The question begged here is, clearly, increased productivity of what? How is it possible to consider productivity as either a good or bad thing unless you know what is being produced?

Newport’s readers are frustrated precisely because they see the way productivity talk evades these questions. They don’t feel that Newport’s preferred terminology captures the character of their own work; or they believe that that terminology has come to dominate how their employers think, and to dominate it in ways that dehumanize their labor, and pervert the structure—and possibly even the nature—of their workplaces. They sense that productivity talk is one of the chief contributors to the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs.”

It is worrisome that Newport, who writes so often and so popularly about work, is blind to these concerns. Again and again in his essay, he notes that people are frustrated, and tries to find ways to respond to their frustration, but cannot think about work in any terms other than the purely quantitative. At one point he seems to see at least part of the problem: “When you ask individuals to optimize productivity, this more-is-more reality pits the professional part of their life against the personal.” But his response to this is to wave vaguely at the shifting of the responsibility for productivity from persons to “systems”: “Instead of demanding that employees individually produce more, we should instead seek systems that produce more given the same number of employees.” For Newport, nothing can displace the sovereignty of more. More of whatever. More of everything.

If we turn from Newport’s essay to Malesic’s, we may find some recourses for thinking in non-quantitative terms. Malesic feels that the one thing most needful is for people to think about their work not as a source of meaning but rather as something that must be understood and practiced within a larger frame of meaning. “For decades, business leaders have [preached] that we’ll find the purpose of our lives at work. It’s a convenient narrative for employers, but look at what we actually do all day: For too many of us, if we aren’t breaking our bodies, then we’re drowning in trivial email. This is not the purpose of a human life.” Therefore, Malesic concludes, “we should look for purpose beyond our jobs and then fill work in around it.” He wants to shift the language we’re thinking with from the quantitative to the qualitative: “Dignity, compassion, leisure: These are pillars of a more humane ethos, one that acknowledges that work is essential to a functioning society but often hinders individual workers’ flourishing.”

This is all welcome, if a little vague. Perhaps the most interesting element of Malesic’s essay is found in the words he didn’t write—for the editors at the New York Times have studded his essay with statements from American workers in a wide range of fields, people who are determined to fight back against a purely productivity-based culture by changing their habits. “I am never going back to angry commute podcast listening and mid-drive meditation to deal with the frustration of traffic. I just can’t stomach the meaningless drive anymore. Work happens wherever,” says one. Says another, “I am never going back to being the last parent to pick up my child from school.” For others the language is that of resolution: “I resolve to do less and enjoy it more.” “I resolve to remember my boundaries. ‘No’ is a complete sentence.”

Among these, some statements are positively formulated, but most of them are negative: They’re about what people aren’t going to do any more, what they refuse to do—the language of boundaries is either explicit or implicit. And this is good. But it’s not enough. It seems to me that most of us have a stronger and clearer sense of what we ought not be doing in our work than of what we ought to do.

When I attempt to articulate a vision of good work that does the double job of setting limits and envisioning hope, I find myself beginning with the phrase itself: “good work.” It’s a phrase that Wendell Berry taught me to use, and while his best articulations of it arise from a Christian context, I think his core commitments are transferable to other contexts as well. I think his language helps us avoid Newport’s narrow and numbing productivity talk, and also begin to flesh out some of the necessary virtues that Malesic points to.

So, here is a passage from Berry’s essay “Christianity and The Survival of Creation”:

Good human work honors God’s work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. But such blasphemy is not possible when the entire Creation is understood as holy and when the works of God are understood as embodying and thus revealing His spirit.

Malesic speaks of work that enables individual “genius”; but he also speaks of compassion for one another. I think individual genius is always made stronger in healthy social contexts, and when I cannot liberate my own creativity at the expense of others. (I find this easier to affirm than to practice.) That means, first, that I have to love my neighbor—my colleague—above my own productivity; and that means, further, that my colleague and I need together to love something that is bigger than either of us. It is in that common love, I believe, that good work can be nurtured.