Are Robots Reducing American Productivity?

American workers have generally stood out for their productivity. This year, however, saw the biggest decline in productivity since 1947.

Worker productivity measures output divided by the number of hours worked. If you make 1,000 widgets in 10 work hours in the first quarter and then make 1,200 widgets in 10 work hours in the second quarter, your productivity has risen. Of course, nobody is working just 10 hours a quarter, but you see how this works.

American workers’ productivity dropped by 7.5 % in Q1 of 2022. It fell by another 4.7% in Q2. This adds up to the worst drop in productivity in the history of recorded productivity levels.

Is it the robots’ fault?

No one is seriously suggesting that robots are causing American workers to slack off. But U.S. companies invested in robots at a record-breaking level in the first quarters of this year. So the rise in the use of robots, which would have been expected to increase worker productivity, took place at the same time as the drop in productivity.

The idea that robots increase productivity is one of the counterarguments to the idea that robots are taking over human jobs. With more robots, the idea goes, manufacturers can make more stuff and the rising tide will lift all the boats.

So what happened to the productivity?

Economists have a variety of suggestions for the surprising drop in productivity. One is just that measurement is off. As people get back to work following pandemic shutdowns, the argument holds, the economy is readjusting and settling in. Apparent changes in productivity reflect shifting demand as people’s habits change. Or extreme weather and supply chain disruptions are continuing to have effects which will be smoothed over in the long run. Pick your temporary glitch, it could be skewing the data.

Other experts note that a lot of people are working in new fields, new jobs, or new circumstances. SO many big changes in such a short time are bound to reduce productivity. Under this interpretation, the drop in productivity is real, but temporary.

Another suggestion is that the record rise in automation and especially in the use of robots has a learning curve. Automation will lead to increased productivity once everyone gets used to it, but in the meantime it may be slowing people down as they learn how to use the new technologies.


Companies are still investing in robots despite the productivity slowdown. It is not clear whether the use of robots has played a significant role in reducing American productivity, but we will be watching developments with interest.

In the meantime, when you need service or support for your Rexroth motion control systems, we should be your first call.

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