Saturday, 3 April 2010
“Productivity” is one of the ways in which our work and lives are measured. It's an idea from time-and-motion studies and is allied to another word: “output.” Lately they've been linked to other words, like “targets” and “league tables.” Underlying these is the notion that speed and quantity are always valuable.
Speed and quantity have their uses. Nobody would suggest putting out a fire slowly or labouring for a week to produce the single, perfect baked bean. But somewhere in the rush to achieve meet targets and achieve maximum productivity, important qualities are lost.
I began thinking about this when I heard Will Self talking on the radio about the experience of walking to the airport. I was mostly concentrating on making coffee but, in my usual quest for maximum productivity, I was listening to the radio as well. The coffee was fine but I caught only a few sentences from Will Self. He pointed out that, in people's haste to reach an exotic destination, they neglected the places in between. Huge suburbs were diminished to places which are crossed as quickly as possible by travellers who want to be somewhere else. Walking to an airport might be one way of regaining an older, more leisurely experience of travel.
I liked this idea of slow travel. I've been toying with the idea of a walking holiday. Perhaps my inspiration was the opening of Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase, though I don't expect to meet Lord Peter Wimsey and could do without the discovery of a corpse. But I think women – even women of my age – are less inclined to solitary walking than they were in the 1930s and, even if I could handle the necessary luggage, I've a feeling my conduct would seem eccentric. Still, I'd love a slow holiday – slow, at least, by modern standards – taking trains, boats and buses as well as strolling by rivers and lounging in bars and cafés. I've been glancing at holiday brochures and they all seem rather intense.
Going slow shouldn't just be a treat for holiday times. There are moments when work is better for going slow. Not all tasks are best done at speed. I prefer the carpenter who works carefully to the hasty worker with an eye on the clock. I think workers who pause occasionally to talk to one another may find they enjoy their work more than those who are harried into silent, urgent speed. The shop assistant who asks after the health of an elderly woman customer may hold up the queue for half a minute, but she's doing a good job.
Teachers have to account for every minute of classroom time under national strategies. They don't have enough time to listen to pupils, go over ideas or even meander slightly from the point, seeing where a thought or a new idea might take them. Children are educated to make every minute “productive” until they're afraid of the kind of day-dreaming in which genuine inspiration strikes. No wonder so many young people see leisure as a time for binge-drinking. An approach to leisure governed by productivity and target-setting is bound to ask “how much can you drink in the time?” and “how quickly can you achieve drunkenness?”
This focus on productivity doesn't seem to have much to do with the way humans deal well with one another. It comes from business. Schools and public services are still being told to model themselves on business, as though no business could ever fail. It comes from the desire to compete and make maximum profits. The demand for high productivity can be found in a number of industries where firms compete with one another for work. Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists describes the house-painters' unwillingness to skimp work in a competitive system which drives down prices and therefore wages. It was heightened by mass-production, in which people serve machines.
The Ford factories of the 1920s and 1930s moved from the craft of car-making, in which workers served an apprenticeship and learnt to make a car as a whole, to machine-tenders who did one simple, easily-learnt task. Initially, the machine-tenders were well paid, although they could easily be laid off or replaced. High productivity lowered prices. This made goods and leisure more widely available in a hugely unequal society. Perhaps it also reduced the demand for greater equality and a fairer distribution of wealth.
I have a taste for things that are produced slowly and with care. I like the idea that someone took trouble and that an item suits me rather than my “demographic.” I like wine, beer, bread and cheeses that are made by people who aim at the best taste they can rather than a neatly-packaged and predictable uniformity. I enjoy books that are a pleasure to touch as well as to read, with elegant type and clear design. I like ideas that have taken years to mature, ideas that are still being made, thought through and tested – ideas too lengthy to be one of five points on a small card and far too rich and complex ever to be shrunk into the neatness of a soundbite.