A report out yesterday suggested that British workers are four times more productive than when the Queen's reign began in 1952. We still work roughly 920 million hours each week, but the value of our economic output is 60 times greater. There are the same number of public sector jobs; fewer skilled manual workers; and many more managerial, professional and technical jobs. One of the biggest changes, the report said, is in how much more stressed we are in the workplace.
But the far more instructive comparison is not between two eras of British workers, but between today's workforces in Britain and China. By that comparison, we're not nearly stressed enough. Last week the Daily Mail reported on the astonishing productivity of workers in Foxconn's Chengdu plant which makes Apple products in south-west China: "working excessive overtime without a single day off during the week, living together in crowded dormitories and standing so long that their legs swell and they can hardly walk after a 24-hour shift."
Or take this from The New York Times recently: "Apple had redesigned the iPhone's screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly-line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the [Chinese] plant near midnight. A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company's dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day. 'The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,' the executive said. 'There's no American plant that can match that.' "
A beautiful report in this week's New Yorker by Leslie T Chang describes how the Chinese bestseller lists are full of "success manuals" and workplace novels, all celebrating extreme hard work.
What does this imply for our allegedly stressed, super-productive workers? As Thomas Friedman put it recently in a masterful New York Times column: average is over. "In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won't earn you what it used to. It can't when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above-average cheap foreign labour, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra – their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in ... their field of employment."
We might seem productive compared with 60 years ago. But to Chinese eyes, we're looking very 1952.