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Productivity is defined as the state or quality of producing something. This simple, seemingly harmless definition is amplified with disturbing addenda: it also can mean the effectiveness of productive effort and the rate of production.  Yes, it is quite nice that you have produced something however I also want to know your rate and effectiveness in producing this something. It had better be a "very good" rate and degree of effectiveness, indeed, preferably "excellent"! In a nice capsulated version, this seems to me to be our country’s dominant measure of worth, value and adulation.


This seems insidious to me.  It looks OK, but it is actually often soul leeching, cruel, irrational and destructive. The product and the producer can both be rendered irrelevant when rate and desired outcomes overtake the effort to produce.  I may successfully create something of ultimate worth and value, but if I do it too slowly or if it does not meet a previously set metric of outcomes, it is rendered irrelevant, useless, a failure. The demoralizing judgment often becomes the dehumanizing judgment.


We in the US teach this early, obsessively, though often subtly. The toddler learning to walk can be a study in a parental investment in productivity.  There is no question that this child will eventually learn to walk: I know of no child who enrolls in college still unable to do so if ably fit.  Nonetheless, as parents we urge, cheer on, practice with, offer praise to, nudge…there are a range of methods…our toddlers to walk, acting as if our failure to do so could lead to our child crawling for life.


We want them to produce upright mobility, and we will keep our focus on the goal until it is met. If our child walks “early” based on established norms (rate), we may brag about it.  If our child obsesses on becoming a walker, dedicated to working on the goal during all waking hours (effectiveness), we may brag about it. Our toddler is really quite productive!


This is a simple example.  There are endless lists of primary and secondary educational norms that focus on requiring and rewarding productivity.  Homework is a good example; just ask any parent. By the time a human has completed a formal educational preparation, aided and abetted by parents, family, friends and peers…we have this human primed to be “productive” and ready to discover that “productive” humans are valued, rewarded, praised and promoted.


Alternately, the person who fails to demonstrate an investment in being “productive” is evaluated in terms that go all the way from lament to viciousness: “goof-off” to “free-loader”, “lazy bum” to “loser”, “slouch” to “parasite”.  These are merely examples. We have actually gotten quite creative in finding ways to dismiss and discount the person who has not embraced the “productivity” dogma. We write policies and pass laws to demean and punish them.


I have spent quite a bit of space and time explaining how all this looks to me. It serves as a bit of a prolog to the confession that I am personally stunned by the degree to which this national obsession lurks in my thinking and behavior.  It is bad enough that I impose it on others through my evaluative behaviors and attitudes.  What is more shocking to me, I think, is the degree to which I impose it on myself through my evaluative behaviors and attitudes.  Some days it simply looks utterly crazy!


I am committed to walking every day that I can for at least 30 minutes, a practice designed to optimize my well-being and functionality (how productive of me). I am committed to writing this blog and sharing my observations in the hope that they will be useful to others (how productive of me). I was ready to leave my home to go for my walk today, which I try to do early so I don’t make excuses and skip it…when I started writing this blog.  Major crisis: two productivity efforts competing with one another, a total (crazy) struggle.


This is just an example.  There is a secret long list! I have reflected on this a good deal, linking it to reflections on self-compassion, mindfulness, creativity and humor.  I have also become increasingly convinced that one of the great challenges of aging in the US is this noisy inner voice urging and rewarding “productivity” while watching one’s productivity, as defined by society, evaporate. If one has concurred with society’s definition with some intensity, aging can be hellacious.


And perhaps more tragically, it is not merely the loss of rewards that is damaging. It is the inner voice of self-recrimination, the inner message that you are no longer of value or worth, have nothing to contribute now that you are no longer “productive”, that you have indeed become a “burden” to society, a “parasite”.  And all that you may do that is of value may not “qualify” as productive, using established societal standards. A good example is the impact of effective grandparenting on a child.


Agism then rears its ugly head to confirm the inner voice, both in small damaging messages and large noisy national ones.  I keep wondering how people totally dependent on their Social Security checks to survive feel when then listen to the news and hear yet another politician or “analyst” opine that Social Security needs to end or is going to collapse. The message could not be clearer, and more dismissive.


While my deep dive into the experiences associated with aging has enriched both my awareness of and sensitivities to the insidious nature of our national imposition of a specific meaning of “productivity”, another exploration has opened an alternative awareness and sensitivity. That is the on-going, often jerky and messy exploration of the impact of Covid 19 and the wide range or responses to a wide range of experiences of the global virus.


One that I have found curious has been showing up in a scatter shot of studies: a dramatic lament about the decline in productivity in US workers.  Sometimes this is focused on a specific group (Gen Z takes a hit here) or a specific industry (a generic “corporate America” is often a focus, an endless stretch of office workers who won’t come back to the office or think working from home makes them more “productive”). There is also a rash of advisory messages to managers and employers about how to get your workers back to embracing “productivity”.


It sometimes feels like some precious vase of illusion got smashed by the Covid virus and no one knows how to fix it, to return to a “preferred” past, or alternately by some, an impulse to rail against Super Glue and Gorilla Glue for their failure to deliver on fractured vase repair. My inner voice recommends a broom, a dust pan, and a sturdy garbage can so the vase fragments do no harm during the trashing.


I’m not against productivity. Indeed, most would describe me as super-productive. That’s the point.  I would prefer that they describe me as kind, or compassionate, or humorous…but the drift toward productivity takes over.  And that tells me that this is why I am of value, and to a sad degree, I have consented to this evaluation, have reinforced it in my way, and can easily be held hostage by it. Productivity itself is not my concern here; making it the dominant indicator of a human’s worth, value, and success is my concern. For persons confronted by aging, what productivity even means can be jaded and distressing.


I am not prepared to abandon my productivity, or suppress anyone else’s.  I just want it to have a space and place of simple “beingness”, not expectation or requirement. I would like to see it abandoned as a cudgel used to beat employees. I would like its role in the national pathological fixation on profit to be revealed, concurrently revealing the damages it inflicts on humans.


I would like it to be celebrated for its own sake, not for its capacity to indicate some arbitrary external valuation scheme. I also want it redefined enough that the contributions elders make are viewed as “productive”. Wisdom work, mentoring, final creative acts and conversations, sharing life lessons, mapping the path to a good death…I want all this recognized as positive “productivity”.


I think this is unfolding, and it gives me great hope and joy, enough that I am going to conclude this blog post, let it start its essential marination stage prior to posting, and go for a walk. It all feels like a clear expression of my impressive “Productivity”!


“Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”


- Albert Einstein –

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