Productivity and the Atlantic Provinces: 2012 Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship Highlights

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Milena Stanoeva Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

“Productivity” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, especially in times of economic uncertainty.  Governments, financial institutions and media commentators are all concerned with measuring, increasing and stimulating Canada’s productivity. But what does the concept of productivity actually mean beyond a gross domestic product (GDP)? Karen Foster, one of this year’s Banting Postdoctoral Fellows, will tackle this question during her research at Saint Mary’s University. The title of her post-doctoral research project is “Beyond the numbers:  the meaning and measure of productivity in Canada.”

An east-coast native, Foster will specifically look at “moments of government intervention in working and earning in Atlantic Canada,” which has historically been a region of concern in terms of productivity, because of its small manufacturing base and seasonal resource base.

Foster argues that productivity is not just an economic indicator, but also a moral issue for many people. During her dissertation research, she interviewed people on the topic of their work lives and found that many stressed the importance of staying “productive” when asked what they would do if they didn’t have to work anymore. People have internalized the idea that productivity is a moral choice and that being productive is important to their self-worth. This is problematic for several reasons.

“What does it mean to be productive aside from staying competitive with other nations,” asks Foster. And further, “what does it mean to be productive in a post-industrial economy?”

Indeed, according to Foster, when people talk about being productive, they don’t mean GDP. However, with more and more of Canada’s employment sector being grounded in service work and the knowledge economy, some workers, especially of the Boomer generation, feel alienated and disconnected from desk jobs where there are no tangible products to show as proof of one’s effort at the end of the day.

Additionally, discourse around productivity generally focuses on labour productivity, meaning the output of individual workers. It does not take into account multi-factor productivity, which includes things like R&D funding and new technologies. According to Foster, many economists have pointed out that Canadian businesses invest less in technology than businesses in comparative countries, and that is keeping our productivity back. However, cutting labour costs is easier and more expedient than investing in and implementing new technology.

More worryingly, however, national productivity gains are no longer mirrored in wage increases for workers, as they used to. Recent policy changes aimed at increasing productivity, such as the proposed changes to Employment Insurance that will make it more difficult for out-of-work people to access support if they refuse to relocate for work, also put the burden of productivity squarely on the shoulders of workers. If working people no longer see personal gains from increased productivity, why is the concept still used to make policy changes palatable to the public, even when these changes are not in their best interests?

Foster wants to examine the meaning of productivity and how policy-makers mobilize it to govern different aspects of citizenship and employment through case-studies of government interventions meant to boost the productivity of the Atlantic Provinces. She chose to work in St. Mary’s department of management so she could collaborate with economists and incorporate their viewpoints into her analysis of productivity.

Foster hopes that her research will lead policy-makers and Canadians to reexamine what productivity means beyond GDP and international competitiveness, and how our thinking on productivity affects people’s lives. She keeps a blog and writes op-eds and letters-to-the-editor to communicate her research findings to a broader, non-academic audience. You can find her blog at


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