What is This ‘Productivity’ You Speak Of?

At least once a week, I am in conversation with someone and I say some variation on ‘I’ve had a very productive day!’ or ‘Ugh, I wasn’t nearly as productive today as I thought I would be, and I feel bad about it.’ Take today. Today is a ‘productive’ day.

How am I defining ‘productive’? How are we defining this word? What does it say about the society that we live in?

For me, the hallmark of productivity is actual work for money. Which I am doing today, ergo it is productive. Lesser in the hierarchy is writing and networking online, both because these things can lead to paid work, and because I think that work is important even when uncompensated. When I write, say, a post about rape culture and it gets picked up and talked about in a lot of places, I think that I have done a ‘productive’ thing because I reached people. Volunteering in the community is ‘productive.’

Less productive: Cleaning the house. Taking a day off to take care of myself. Lying in bed reading a book. These things are all bad. They are the things that make me feel guilty, like I am not doing enough. These are the things that I berate myself with when I want to blame myself for being not productive. How could I waste a whole day doing nothing?

One of the consequences of living in a capitalist society is not just that work is privileged, but that it is deemed to be the paragon of productivity. This is rather exclusive to people who cannot work, do not want to work, or would like very much to work but can’t find work or are excluded from workplaces. This divide between ‘work’ as productive and ‘things done at home’ as not-productive also devalues a lot of really important work that happens in the home, like, say, oh, I don’t know. Child rearing, perhaps? After all, you can’t have ‘productive’ workers without at some point having babies, right? That is how this works unless I wasn’t paying any attention in biology?

This valuing of ‘productivity’ and defining this word in very set and specific ways becomes so internalised that I myself reflect it even as I recognise that it is harmful. I still feel like a bad person when I try to structure my schedule to take a day off or when I do something fun because I want to. As do many people. Calling in sick, whether to work or to school, is an act of shame and humiliation. Admitting that a situation is too big to handle, that you can’t ‘productively’ deal with it at a given time, is wrong. Not working is a personal failing.

Is it any wonder that people work themselves to death, really? I mean, really? We live in a society where work, as in ‘paid work in a workplace where you are performing labour for someone else’ is the paragon of all that is good, and we wonder why people are willing to kill themselves to get and hold jobs? We wonder why it is that some workplaces, like financial institutions, are so ‘unhealthy’? It couldn’t possibly be because no value is actually set on health, right?

This becomes insidious and vicious. As we collectively decide what is and is not work and, by extension, what we can devalue, people are trampled by the wayside, and we don’t even stop to offer them a helping hand. Because, well, they fell down on their own, right? Nothing we did. They were weak and couldn’t help it. This is used as the justification to deny aid to people all the time, because they aren’t ‘productive’ or because they have ‘nothing to contribute’ because the only contribution that is valued, collectively, is ‘work.’

What do we mean when we say that someone is productive? What makes certain activities more productive than others, and why are we letting certain people define this and draw this line? How is it that we continue to belittle and mock poverty, to treat unemployment as moral weakness, to demand that people must be ‘productive’ before they can receive social benefits or be considered full members of society?

I commonly encounter the very ableist notion that people with disabilities do not work. This is perpetuated by the myth that we all live on disability benefits, wiping our behinds with golden toilet paper and taking long trips to the tropics on the government dime. Let me tell you something about government benefits: They are not available to a lot of people. They are woefully insufficient. They come with huge numbers of strings attached (including strings that prevent us from working while receiving benefits). So, no, actually, lots of people with disabilities work, including people who injure themselves, badly, in the process because to go without work is to die.

This idea, that none of us work, is also used as a sly argument to exclude us from society. We are not ‘productive,’ you see, and therefore we have nothing to add to society. We certainly aren’t human beings, because human beings must be productive. I see people questioning the need to integrate us fully into public spaces, to accommodate us, and it often comes with a note of ‘those entitled disabled people, always demanding and never giving anything back.’

What ‘productivity’ is is very much open to debate. People often thought of and described as nonproductive actually give, a lot, to their communities. To their families. To the world in general.

I’m trying to break myself of the tendency to reinforce the productivity hierarchy. It’s hard. Fighting deeply internalised beliefs usually is.