Why are American workers getting less productive?

So what gives? Well, according to one economist, it has little to do with social-media-inspired slacking off and more to do with workers having outgrown existing technology. “We have an $18 trillion economy,” explains Robert Gordon of Northwestern University, whose book The Rise and Fall of American Growth came out earlier this year. “Most of it is operating by the same business methods and procedures that have been in place for at least 10 years.”

Gordon links the productivity boosts of recent decades to the proliferation of time-saving technology that enabled workers to be more organized and streamlined business processes. “We had a great revolution in the 1980s and ’90s as businesses transitioned from paper, typewriters, file cabinets to personal computers with spreadsheets, word-processing software,” he adds. “And then that revolution was accompanied in the 1990s by the internet, by free information through search engines, through e-commerce, and doing away with paper.”

Without a correspondingly groundbreaking set of innovations in recent years, productivity growth has not only shrunk in the last three quarters, but in four of the last six. Further enfeebled by an unsteady global outlook, the U.S. economy has been expanding much more slowly than forecasts predicted. “In much of the economy,” Gordon says, “daily practices of business methods are not being influenced by the recent innovations in terms of robots, smartphones, or the other things that have happened more recently.”