The implicit costs of productivity in a modern society

The contemporary global economy is full of an ever growing number of opportunities in an ever growing number of different markets and industries. The rapid rise of the global economy over the past century has not only coincided with increased levels of GDP, market diversification, and astounding technological innovation. It may also be characterized by the increased costs of participation – in terms of both physical and psychological well-being.

This is not to say that the growth of the world economy has only caused physical and psychological damage – it has, without a doubt, led to the lifting of many out of abject poverty (according to the Economist roughly one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the past 20 years), amazing technological innovation, which has raised the world’s general standard of living, and finally, this growth has reduced war between nations through interweaving their economic well-being through trade (according to the World Trade Organization, the decline of protectionist economics after World War II has coincided with this past half century’s relatively low levels of overt war). Yet, on the flip side of the coin, this new economy has traded the intense suffering of the undeveloped world for a set of new problems, that stem from the excessive productivity that characterizes the first world.

Participants in this new world economy, whether entry level employees or high level executives, are simply self-destructing under the multi-faceted pressure of the workplace. The need to perform competitively has been amplified as the pool of competitors (in terms of businesses or employment) has expanded dramatically in the global market place. This is because of a plethora of reasons, but primarily through the intensification of market competition through technology. In the past, even in the most competitive of industries, an employee would work their shift and return home for downtime and rest. Now the boundaries between work and home life have become increasingly blurred, with the adoption of new technology. According to Daily Mail, a psychological study on 57,000 employees showed that roughly half of these people worked beyond their scheduled hours and were more likely to be afflicted with ailments such as insomnia, headaches, fatigue, anxiety, stomach pain, and cardiovascular problems. The use of emails, pagers and phones allows work to be done outside the official domain of work – this may make this unhealthy work/life balance appear completely self-induced: “Why doesn’t one simply not use such technology outside of work?” The answer to this question is that working outside of work makes an employee much more competitive and thus more prone to getting promotions or raises, etc. Any employee who refuses to do the same will likely find competing with their peers very difficult.

Ironically, such technology was conceived of as being able to reduce the average worker’s stress by making the individual more productive and thus able to finish tasks faster as well as more efficiently. Instead the demand placed on employees only increased in tandem with their skyrocketing productivity. Amazingly, it seems that as of late, the market has become aware of the apparent unsustainability of such conditions or at least the demand for ways to reduce such stresses.

The past few decades have been fascinating in that thousands of businesses that aim to commercialize physical and psychological well-being have become incredibly successful. The success of such industries are without a doubt due to the increasing demands placed on the modern day worker. Companies that are reflective of this new budding market have found recent success in specialising in health foods (e.g. Whole Foods), or in psychiatric medication (according to Harvard Health Publications antidepressant use in the US rose 400 per cent between 1988-1994 and 2005-2008), or even spiritual activities (e.g. commercialization of Transcendental Meditation, or growth of yoga studios, etc.)

Yet, such businesses are less eager to optimise one’s standard of living than to simply capitalize on the average person’s demand or need for some way to counteract or cope with the incredible stress they experience day to day. This is not to say that such businesses and the services they provide are immoral nor should even be avoided. In fact, such businesses and their products may very well help to alleviate the problems faced by today’s employee. Even so, alleviation of stressors is not necessarily optimization of well-being – it may just be that the very cultural , engendered by the globalized economy, which treats everything as a means to an end is the real root of the problem. Even if one is in great health with an incredibly successful career, what does it matter if every day of this individual’s life is spent in a frantic race to sustain or improve such conditions? Even if physical and psychological health can be achieved through market—based means, can our more fundamental spiritual/existential well-being really be achieved through such aimless means-to-end thinking?

It is worth asking as to whether or not a society as a whole may wish to prevent or even curtail the ever pervasive growth of work into every facet of our lives. Or possibly, taking the time for an individual reevaluation of what is truly meaningful may just reveal that the costs of falling behind in the global rat race may be well worth the rewards.

Robert Smith
Assistant External News Editor

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