The Productivity Paradox

Computer Screen with words "Do More"

by Eric Goldman



The Productivity Paradox

The story of human productivity is tightly integrated with the tale of our technology. (1) Stanley Kubrick’s movie, 2001 Space Odyssey, depicted the possible moment in time when early hominids first discovered tools. The scene shows the leader of a tribe accidentally finding that a large bone from a mammoth’s skeleton could be used to smash smaller bones into fragments. Later, he uses the bone to smash in the head of a rival tribe’s leader, perhaps marking the discovery of hand-held weapons, too.

Early Human

Scene from 2001: Space Odyssey

Homo sapiens were using stone tools as far back as 315,000 years ago, but Kubrick’s Neanderthal tribe probably sets the scene around 50,000 years ago. And while the record is vague, I’m betting that human productivity has risen in lockstep with the introduction of each new technology, from that moment to the present day.

Well, almost…

Starting in 2000 CE, our productivity began a decline which has now lasted for 2 straight decades. This is the first time in our recorded history that productivity has declined over a 10-year period, let alone for two in a row. And what makes this paradoxical, is that it’s happening while we add the most powerful set of tools and capabilities we’ve created to date.

To help us understand the issue, let’s begin by looking at productivity for the previous 12,000 years. The figure below is a crude approximation; historians will argue about the chosen seminal events, and the Y-Axis values are missing for obvious reasons, but the trend is clear.

Technology Curve

Productivity for the past 12,000 years

If you doubt the exponential increase towards the end of the period, hold that thought; we’ll return to it in a moment. The next chart picks up the story of our productivity in 1771, a few years before we started burning fossil fuels to generate power and kicked the industrial revolution into high gear.

Productivity Curve

Graph by Lewis, (Bank of England), 2018.

Productivity increased and decreased year-over-year, at times significantly, but until 2000, each decade’s average was up. Of course, many factors influence productivity, but the graph shows that while my bet on new technologies leading to increased productivity seems logical, it isn’t a winning wager. For example, productivity decreased in 1881 when Thomas Edison and Graham Bell formed the Oriental Telephone Company, and then again in 2007 when the iPhone was launched.

Here’s another rough approximation, this one showing how our technology’s power, availability and scope of application has increased since 2000.

From fixed and limited to infinite in 20 years

Moore’s law has accurately predicted, since he stated it in 1965, that computers will double in power every 2 years. An iPhone 12, for example, has more computing power than a Cray Supercomputer did in 2000, and, according to Apple, there are more than 1 billion iPhones in use today. The cloud today provides a practically infinite amount of computing power, more or less on demand, to anyone with a credit card. Witness the way Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Netflix added millions of users in just a few weeks at the start of the pandemic.

The infrastructure making the cloud possible, is the Internet. Neilsen’s law predicts that Internet bandwidth will increase 50% each year, and according to this graph, it averaged precisely that between 1983 and 2018.

Graph - Bandwidth Growth

The rise in Internet Bandwidth Speeds over 15 years

As for software and application functionality, in the last 10 years we have automated more of what we do than we have in all of history. Today, some factories use autonomous robots to accept, unpack and store materials at the receiving end, assemble and manufacture products on the factory floor, and then pack and ship them to the final mile’s delivery unitstill, for now, an actual person driving a truck.

So what’s up? Why is productivity declining as we automate more and more of what we do?

One reason is the iPhone. People spend so much time on their phones, that their other tasks suffer from a lack of attention and focus. Many of today’s parents, for example, no longer actively parent their young because while they are present physically, they’re emotionally and mentally focussed on their phones. These parents, to use the new buzzword, are providing presenteeism parenting. The word was coined for employees who are physically present at work, but whose stressed lives or health issues render them mentally absent. The lights are on, but no one’s home.

Obviously, this steady drop in productivity is caused my more than our obsessive use of phones. Ray Kurzweil, in a 2003 interview, said, and I’ll paraphrase for brevity, in the past 20 years, we’d changed more than in the whole 20th C, and that in the next 14 years we’d repeat that wholesale change again, and then again in 7 years. He ended with this statement:

And because of the explosive power of exponential growth, the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress, which is a thousand times greater than the 20th century, which was no slouch to change.

If you think Kurzweil is exaggerating, consider:

  • Slightly more than 50% of the companies on the Fortune 500 have vanished since 2000. In 1955, the average tenure of a company on the F500 was 75 years; the average length of stay in 2015 was 15 years. Factor in the digital transformation projects organizations today are either planning or undertaking, and the way we work is changing at an astonishing pace.
  • The Corona virus, beginning in January 2020, unleashed one of the most profound changes to our evolutionary path and pace since Eve bit the apple.

The change from hunter-gatherer to farmer rolled in over thousands of years. Our latest evolutionary leap, accomplished in just one year, has transformed us into people spending most of their time at home, and sending their newly-created digital twins out to work, collaborate with other digital twins, shop online, and play with our virtual friends. This change is Kurzweil’s predicted 20,000 years of progress in the 21st C, compressed to the first 20 years. It’s the nature of exponential beasts, and it’s why my graph of the first 12,000 years has a kick at the end.

What’s the impact of this rate of change on you?

In a word: Stress. Most people don’t like change; in a world of complex choices and decision making, they tend to draw solace from routine and predictability. Stress levels are rising at home and work, and domestic violence is up world-wide. One study revealed that 83% of Americans today find their work lives stressful.

Adapting is hard work. It takes a willingness to learn, and time and effort; the rate of change demanded of us today has turned us all into permanent students. And studies show that learning is often stressful, especially when the intended outcome is important to our future.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, the process we use to store and retrieve memories is itself a source of stress. To understand why, we need to go back to 1885, when Hermann Ebbinghaus published his experiments on human memory.


Hermann Ebbinghaus (January 24, 1850 — February 26, 1909)

He was the first person to conduct formal research into memory, and his learning and forgetting curves are still accurate today.

Graph - the "forgetting" curve

Students: forget about teaching them…

As you can see, students forget 58% of what they learned 20 minutes after leaving the classroom, and 2 days later, they’ve forgotten about 70%. You could clutch at the straw that these numbers are for students in a classroom setting, but our work-life learning performance is likely to be significantly worse than this “ideal” setting. In classrooms and formal training sessions, there are handouts, structured lectures in which you take notes, revision exercises… All tricks that transfer a memory from short to long-term storage before its washed away by the firehose of your sensory inputs.

But here’s the thing: Our memories are designed to forget because they have a finite capacity. To store new memories, you sometimes have to free up space by deleting old ones. It’s why we all use calendars, planners and ToDo lists, and, of course, Kippa: Fast and easy reminders for Microsoft Teams ©.

Kippa Logo

Kippa hides his Infallible memory under a KTi hat

The cause of memory-related stress then, is that we intuitively know about the forgetting curve; we all have first-hand experience of our designed-to-forget memories; and we understand that as permanent students, we need to remember more each day, but also realize that we have no place to store it all. It’s like we’ve suddenly fallen down the rabbit hole and become Red Queens, running flat-out yet still lagging behind.

We’re slowing down because we’re spending more time learning and adapting, and less time working. And the stress inflicted by the rapidly increasing rate of change is impacting our health and mental state, literally making us sick, and thus further reducing our productivity. Studies show employee stress related health care costs are rising at triple the rate of all other costs.

There is no magic pill for this malady. Organizations that don’t help their employees deal with these high levels of stress risk losing people to job-turnover, poor health and extended leaves of absence. And the problem is that most organizations don’t dedicate resources to help deal with the desperate conditions some of their people are experiencing.

Humanity will turn the corner and start being more productive in the future, perhaps only when our technology has advanced to become the equivalent of Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. in the movie Ironman. If we no longer have to learn new stuff all the time, if all we have to do is talk and gesture and everything happens automagically, we’ll go back to the happy and productive folks we used to be. And if Ray Kurzweil is right, that could happen in the next 9 years.

But all is not lost. There is one cure today for a stressed memory: Kippa. Fast and easy reminders for Microsoft Teams ©.

(1). The facts in this article were gleaned from a large number of sources and references. The complete bibliography is at

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