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The future of work II: standard of working up, quality of work life down

Humans love to keep score. Nowadays there seems to be a scorecard or measurement index for just about everything from the cost of living to the cost of dying and everything in between. The problem with many of these measures is that they take a pure economic view of whatever is being measured. But conclusions about the economy or business can often be misleading when drawn from only those indicators that are easy to quantify.

As Albert Einstein noted, "Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted."

Yet many people, particularly economists, remain fixated on the numbers. A widely tracked numerical economic indicator is the standard of living. Economists are fond of pointing out how advances in technology and the globalization of business are driving increases in our standard of living in America. Some economists equate standard of living and quality of life as the same, but they are not.

Standard of living has to do with the degree of prosperity in a nation, as measured by income levels, quality of housing and food, medical care, educational opportunities, transportation, communications, and other measures. Quality of life on the other hand, refers to an individual's satisfaction with his or her life and general sense of well-being. It is often measured as physical, psychological and social well-being.

Economists argue that increasing the standard of living is a good thing. The cheaper the cost, the more of a product or service we can buy, the higher the standard of living, the better off we are. Right? Not necessarily. Take food for example - today Americans enjoy plentiful and cheap food. We consume more calories for less cost than ever before. Everywhere you look portions sizes are getting larger. "Ventis" ... "Supersizes" ... "Jumbos" or in the words of Dave Barry "Mega Grandissimaximo Giganto de Humongo-Rama-Lama-Ding-Dongs" are everywhere. Need a six-pound jar of pickles? You can get it at Wal-Mart, for a mere $2.39! (What ever happened to mini-sized products like six-ounce 'pony' bottles of Rolling Rock beer?) Our cost per calorie is at an all-time low and odds are good it will continue to drop.
In the eyes of economists this is irrefutable evidence of our increasing standard of living. But what about our quality of life – does consuming these products improve that as well? Nearly 70 percent of Americans are overweight and at health risk. Almost thirty percent are obese (more than 30 pounds overweight). Obesity is classified as an illness linked to all sorts of health problems. Our standard of living may be up as a result of an overabundance of cheap food but our quality of life seems to be diminished from consuming it.

This situation is not confined to food. Choice inflation is pervasive – in shops, at the movies, on TV, in restaurants. Impact on the standard of living? Unarguably better. How about quality of life? It's not so clear. There are two cars for every three Americans. More cars mean a better standard of living. But traffic congestion, gridlock, and road infrastructure are all bad and getting worse. Quality of life – better or worse? It certainly didn't feel better to me the last time I was stuck in traffic gridlock.

The concepts of standard of living and quality and life have parallels in business. I refer to these as "standard of working" and "quality of work life". The standard of working (degree of productivity) is on a roll. Technology is making workers more productive than ever. Everyone has information at their finger tips. Lean manufacturing practices and automation means we can produce more per person than ever before. But what about our quality of work life – is it rising or falling? Well, it depends on where you sit in the organization. Some might argue that the quality of work life for CEO's – given their astronomic levels of compensation and perks - has never been higher.

How about the average worker? Pay has been flat or rising at modest levels. Many benefits have been pared and some even eliminated. Workloads continue to increase. More flexibility has been given to workers, but many are working in the evenings at home, on the road and on weekends. Satisfaction, engagement and commitment are down by most measures. Is the quality of our work life getting better or worse?

The disparity between standard of working and quality of work life, just as the imbalance between standard of living and quality of life, needs to be redressed. One cannot continue to increase while the other diminishes. The knowledge economy depends on engaging talent and leveraging their passion. For the growing ranks of these workers, quality of work life is critical, not only to how they feel but to the quality of the work they produce.

If the future of work is to remain bright, we must find ways to increase the standard of working and the quality of work life.

Are you interested in joining with other like-minded people to create Next Generation Companies and workplaces? Whether you already work in a progressive company and workplace and want to make it better or labor in an uninspiring organization, we invite you to join us in building an active community of workplace change agents. Please contact me at and tell me the issues you are most interested in discussing with your fellow Next Generation Company and future workplace pioneers.

Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, writer, and advisor with Next Generation Consulting. He works at the intersection of people, business strategy, and information technology to help companies create a committed and high performance workforce. Tony can be reached at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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