The 0% Solution

By Stanley Bing, Fortune columnist

(Fortune Magazine) -- News comes from the Department of Labor that productivity growth in nonfarm business in the U.S. hit a critical number in the third quarter. That number was zero, as in naught, as in nothing, no growth at all, not even something you could round up to a minuscule decimal of some kind.

Couple that with the fact that unit labor costs went up slightly, reaching an annual growth rate of 3.8%, and many analysts view this as bad news. Well, I don't. Neither should you. Au contraire.

The bottom line is this: People are being paid slightly more for doing exactly the same amount of work. The cost of labor is going up a little bit, and the average worker is producing precisely what he or she did last quarter. I don't know about you, but that seems to be cause for modest rejoicing.

Let's look at what forces are coming together to suppress productivity growth, to see if we can augment them in some way.

First of all, I don't know about you, but I'm tired. I don't want my productivity to grow any more. My productivity has been expanding since I hit the ground several decades ago, and it hasn't stopped once. Actually, the fact that I'm even as productive as I have been is surprising to me. I'm not trying to be. If the company wants me to be more productive every quarter, it's going to have to think of some further inducement. I intend to maintain productivity, and that's all, and I think you should too. Let's send a message.

Second, I'm thinking that the reason we kept being more productive in the first place wasn't so good. When I started out, my department had 20 people rushing around working very hard. Then the corporation, under pressure from Wall Street to grow our stock price every day, decided to do what analysts, investment bankers, and business reporters all agree is the most terrific thing a successful enterprise can do: fire a bunch of people and make those who remain do the work that used to be done by the others.

Before long, we had ten people doing the work of 20. This naturally produced impressive gains in individual productivity. Of course it did! But at what cost, I ask you. Actually, I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. A big one.

The thing that's happened now is that corporate America is just about done firing people, because if management wants to fire any more people, it's going to have to start firing itself. That's expensive. Firing an executive is often more expensive than retaining him.

The third development having an impact is that life is getting more distracting and interesting. Where we used to have our noses to the grindstone every minute, now we do a million things of marginal value to productivity while appearing to be working. We are at the small end of a funnel that has had a bunch of variables poured into it, including:

* Too many meetings, the results of management philosophies that value consensus, the search for which is perhaps the greatest productivity killer on the planet.

* Too many digital devices--iPods, BlackBerrys, cellphones, all pouring extraneous crud into our noggins. You know what's productive? A guy with a legal pad and a pencil, locked in a padded room until his work is done.

* Too much Internet. The other day, instead of reading a spreadsheet, I watched a bulldog skateboarding around a parking lot on YouTube. Then I enjoyed a video titled "Bizarre English Lessons for Japanese Tourists." After that, I went down the hall and hung out with a couple of guys who were bidding for a Pez dispenser on eBay. Then it was time to go home.

As if all this were not enough, there is a fourth factor at work: the notion of productivity itself. What does it mean in this environment? As a nation, we're making fewer and fewer tangible things. And the most productive among us are often the most indolent.

It's now possible that some wonk who went to bed at 6 a.m., woke up at dusk, and spent the entire following evening playing with his PSP could become the next multi-trillionaire when his mental vapor coalesces into an acquirable idea. How does one measure productivity like that?

Maybe the whole measurement is passé. Maybe we should be measuring time spent downloading, or hours spent awake but completely inert. And pushing ourselves ever upward toward a goal of making more and more money while doing less and less. After all, that has been the ethic of senior management for thousands of years. Perhaps now the rest of us can get up to speed--and slow down.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to think about all the things I can do with that 3.8%.

Stanley Bing's new book, 100 Bullshit Jobs & And How to Get Them (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at  Top of page