Labor Productivity and Economic Growth
Sustained long-term economic growth comes from increases in worker productivity, which essentially means how well we do things. In other words, how efficient is your nation with its time and workers? Labor productivity is the value that each employed person creates per unit of his or her input. The easiest way to comprehend labor productivity is to imagine a Canadian worker who can make 10 loaves of bread in an hour versus a U.S. worker who in the same hour can make only two loaves of bread. In this fictional example, the Canadians are more productive. Being more productive essentially means you can do more in the same amount of time. This in turn frees up resources to be used elsewhere.
What determines how productive workers are? The answer is pretty intuitive. The first determinant of labor productivity is human capital. Human capital is the accumulated knowledge (from education and experience), skills, and expertise that the average worker in an economy possesses. Typically the higher the average level of education in an economy, the higher the accumulated human capital and the higher the labor productivity.
The second factor that determines labor productivity is technological change. Technological change is a combination of invention—advances in knowledge—and innovation, which is putting that advance to use in a new product or service. For example, the transistor was invented in 1947. It allowed us to miniaturize the footprint of electronic devices and use less power than the tube technology that came before it. Innovations since then have produced smaller and better transistors that that are ubiquitous in products as varied as smart-phones, computers, and escalators. The development of the transistor has allowed workers to be anywhere with smaller devices. These devices can be used to communicate with other workers, measure product quality or do any other task in less time, improving worker productivity.
The third factor that determines labor productivity is economies of scale. Recall that economies of scale are the cost advantages that industries obtain due to size. (Read more about economies of scale in Cost and Industry Structure.) Consider again the case of the fictional Canadian worker who could produce 10 loaves of bread in an hour. If this difference in productivity was due only to economies of scale, it could be that Canadian workers had access to a large industrial-size oven while the U.S. worker was using a standard residential size oven.
Now that we have explored the determinants of worker productivity, let’s turn to how economists measure economic growth and productivity.
Sources of Economic Growth: The Aggregate Production Function
To analyze the sources of economic growth, it is useful to think about a production function, which is the process of turning economic inputs like labor, machinery, and raw materials into outputs like goods and services used by consumers. A microeconomic production function describes the inputs and outputs of a firm, or perhaps an industry. In macroeconomics, the connection from inputs to outputs for the entire economy is called an aggregate production function.
Components of the Aggregate Production Function
Economists construct different production functions depending on the focus of their studies. Figure 6.2 presents two examples of aggregate production functions. In the first production function, shown in Figure 6.2 (a), the output is GDP. The inputs in this example are workforce, human capital, physical capital, and technology. We discuss these inputs further in the module, Components of Economic Growth.
An economy’s rate of productivity growth is closely linked to the growth rate of its GDP per capita, although the two are not identical. For example, if the percentage of the population who holds jobs in an economy increases, GDP per capita will increase but the productivity of individual workers may not be affected. Over the long term, the only way that GDP per capita can grow continually is if the productivity of the average worker rises or if there are complementary increases in capital.
A common measure of U.S. productivity per worker is dollar value per hour the worker contributes to the employer’s output. This measure excludes government workers, because their output is not sold in the market and so their productivity is hard to measure. It also excludes farming, which accounts for only a relatively small share of the U.S. economy. Figure 6.3 shows that the average amount produced by a U.S. worker in an hour averaged over $100 in 2011, more than twice the amount an average worker produced per hour in 1966.
According to the Department of Labor, U.S. productivity growth was fairly strong in the 1950s but then declined in the 1970s and 1980s before rising again in the second half of the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. In fact, the rate of productivity measured by the change in output per hour worked averaged 3.2% per year from 1950 to 1970; dropped to 1.9% per year from 1970 to 1990; and then climbed back to over 2.3% from 1991 to the present, with another modest slowdown after 2001. Figure 6.4 shows average annual rates of productivity growth averaged over time since 1950.