We have previously compared the growth in real per-capita gross domestic product between the United States and Japan and among the 10 largest advanced economies. Growth in GDP per-capita measures the increase in the average economic well-being in the country, and adjusts gross GDP growth for whether the population is increasing, stable or declining.

We now shift to comparisons of growth in GDP per-worker (more precisely, per employed person). This addresses productivity, rather than overall economic well-being, and adjusts for shifts in the composition of the population among those who are employed. Those are who not employed include, for example, children, full-time students, retired people, those unemployed and looking for work, those unemployed and not looking for work, and those (especially mothers) who do plenty of work in the home, but not as paid employees.

If the overall population is growing, it’s possible for GDP to grow while GDP per-capita does not. Similarly, if there is a shift within the population toward greater workforce participation, GDP per-capita might grow, while GDP per-worker does not. More generally, the growth rates of these measures of economic performance may be quite different.

Table 1 compares the striking slowdown in economic growth between the last half of the 20th century and the first 15 years of the 21st in the growth of real GDP, both per-capita and per-worker. However, the 21st century slowdown, while marked, is less extreme when measured per-worker (1.82 percent to 1.11 percent) than when measured per-capita (2.25 percent to 0.90 percent). In other words, the productivity slowdown is less than the overall economic welfare deceleration. This reflects demographic changes: from 1959 to 2000, the number of workers grew faster than the population as a whole. In the 21st century, it’s grown more slowly.

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How does the United States compare to Japan, when measured in growth in real GDP per-worker?  Here our data makes us shift to 1960 to 2014, still a more than 50-year run. The relative growth performance of the two countries flips dramatically between the 20th and 21st centuries, although both are significantly slower, as shown in Table 2. Japan will continue to be an interesting case of a very technically advanced, but rapidly aging economy with falling employment and a falling population going forward.

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Seemingly small differences in compound growth rates make for big differences if they continue over time. Table 3 shows the multiple of real GDP per-worker over 50 years in the actual second half of the 20th century, compared to a projection for 50 years of the 21st century if the century’s current trends continue. The result is a drop from an aggregate improvement of 2.5 times, to 1.7 times.

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Can the growth in real GDP per-worker reaccelerate or not?  That is indeed the question.


Image by Sean K