What does a productive life really look like?

Google that question, and you’ll get 123,000,000 results from business magazines, online forums and memes trying to convey the perfect formula to a ‘productive life’. This pressure to be productive is new, and is by no means universal. But those of us who ask ourselves that questions are to some extent judging our self-worth via how much impact we feel we’ve had on the economy ... that doesn't seem right.

Our focus on productivity could be tied to the emphasis on economic growth, which is an increase in the amount of goods and services being produced in an economy over time. The emphasis on growth as the be-all-end-all measure of economic success has put pressure on us as individuals to produce more goods and services as our way of contributing to the economy.

But the more technology and innovation develop, the less hours it takes to produce exactly the same amount of stuff. In theory, then, unless we wanted to produce even more, we could work much less hours to sustain exactly the same amount of production. One economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted in 1930 that by 1970, we’d all be working no more than fifteen hours a week because of this, and would finally have a bit more time to sit back, relax, and enjoy ourselves.

Why hasn’t this happened? There’s a series of possible answers, and you might have your own, too. Yes, technology has advanced, but wealth distribution is as unequal as it’s ever been, so the fact that we’re producing unprecedented amounts of stuff doesn’t mean everyone’s getting as much as they need.

And we go to work for more reasons than just to sustain ourselves - it might be for a sense of purpose, because we enjoy the task at hand, or because we want to develop a new skill.  So even if we didn’t have to, we’d probably still want to spend our time doing something we felt was useful. Whether or not we’ll continue to view useful and productive as being the same thing for much longer is another question.