In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, much of the global economy came to a grinding halt. In the United States, industrial production and retail sales plunged to historic lows. In the eurozone, employment contracted at the fastest rate ever recorded. And around the world, many economies went into a sudden and deep recession.

The pandemic did more than temporarily paralyze the global economy, however. It spurred businesses in practically every sector to radically rethink their operations, often accelerating plans for technological and organizational innovation that were already in the works. Overwhelmingly, firms adopted new digital technologies that enabled them to continue doing business even under severe coronavirus restrictions. The result was a profound economic transformation, one that has hastened the potential for productivity gains even in sectors that have historically been slow to change. In health care, for example, telemedicine had long promised new efficiencies and added value, but it was not until the COVID-19 crisis that it took off. In retail, with the exception of e-commerce players, firms had been slow to adopt digital sales strategies, doing so mostly as a way to complement Main Street retailing. That changed rapidly with the pandemic.

Surprising as it may seem, out of the deepest economic crisis since World War II could come a new era of productivity gains and prosperity. Whether that happens will depend largely on the decisions that governments and businesses make as they prepare to exit the pandemic in the coming months. In the short and medium term, the prospects for increased productivity—and prosperity—are encouraging, as the United States and other countries spend heavily on economic recovery and businesses reap the benefits of digitization. But the outlook is less optimistic over the long term, since governments cannot spend indefinitely and consumer and investment spending may not fill the gap.

Governments and businesses must therefore seek to create the conditions for sustained productivity growth and prosperity, in particular by facilitating the diffusion of technological and organizational innovations and bolstering consumer demand. Out of a major global crisis could come a major jolt of productivity growth—but only if policymakers and business leaders make the most of this moment.

THE PRODUCTIVITY PARADOX

The history of productivity growth can be understood as a succession of technological revolutions, from the steam engine to the computer. Each offered the promise of accelerated productivity and economic growth, and each eventually delivered. But there has often been a delay between innovation and adoption, and another between adoption and economic impact. The economist Robert Solow summed up these apparent discrepancies in a 1987 article in The New York Times Book Review, writing, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” His formulation became known as “the Solow paradox.”

But then came the revolution in information and communication technologies between 1995 and 2005, a decade in which the Solow paradox was temporarily resolved. Widespread adoption of these technologies was accompanied by a simultaneous acceleration in productivity, which grew at an annualized rate of 2.5 percent in the United States, a full percentage point faster than the rate between 1970 and 1995. Companies invested heavily in information and communication technologies and reorganized their operations and managerial practices around them. They did so out of the desire to gain a competitive edge, but also because of relatively robust consumer demand for their products.

Productivity growth accelerated in several sectors as a result, driving growth in the U.S. economy as a whole. This period was characterized by an unusual combination of large spurts in productivity growth in a few big sectors employing many workers, such as retail and wholesale, and even larger productivity growth in smaller sectors, such as those that produced computers and electronic products. In both big and small sectors, there was a virtuous cycle of employment growth to meet demand and even faster growth in the value of the output from these sectors. The value of outputs across all sectors of the economy grew by 3.4 percent per year between 1995 and 2005, whereas the total number of hours worked grew by only 0.9 percent per year.

But the boom did not last. Between 2005 and 2019, annual productivity growth in the United States fell by more than half, to 1.0 percent. In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, from 2010 to 2019, it was even lower, at 0.6 percent. Unlike the United States, European countries had not experienced rapid productivity gains in the 1995–2005 period, but they did experience the postcrisis decline. Between 2010 and 2019, annual productivity growth fell below one percent in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Out of a major global crisis could come a major jolt of productivity growth.

The Solow paradox was back. After a decade of rapid productivity gains, the information technology revolution had reached a point of diminishing returns. But the next wave of technology—the digitization of processes, big data and analytics, cloud computing, the Internet of Things—was not yet ready to fill the gap. Despite early breakthroughs in image recognition and natural language processing, few firms had begun to make use of artificial intelligence technologies, and digitization was proceeding slowly. We estimated, based on a sector-by-sector assessment, that in 2015, the United States had reached only 18 percent of its digital potential and Europe had reached only 12 percent. Moreover, a gap had opened up between the firms that were digital leaders and those that were digital laggards—a gap that other researchers found was correlated with a gap in labor productivity.

This gap in technology adoption was widening at a time of weak consumer demand for goods and services, in large part due to the aftereffects of the financial crisis. Firms scaled back their investments, and fewer new businesses were created. Making matters worse, the share of income that flowed to top earners and the owners of capital increased, while the share that went to labor decreased, further weakening demand.

Across the United States and Europe, the vast majority of sectors experienced declines in productivity growth. Only four percent of all sectors recorded productivity jumps in 2014, compared with an average of 18 percent of sectors that achieved substantial increases in productivity in the previous two decades. Growth in gross value added—a measure of a firm’s or a sector’s contribution to GDP—declined from 3.4 percent annually between 1995 and 2005 to 1.8 percent between 2005 and 2019. Growth in hours worked remained roughly unchanged, at 0.7 percent, throughout both periods.

These two very different periods of economic activity in the United States reveal much about the underpinnings of productivity growth. It stems first and foremost from the widespread adoption of technological innovations, especially general-purpose technologies such as electricity and the Internet. But it also stems from the managerial innovation and reorganization of functions and tasks that occur when firms adopt new technologies. Both of these processes must spur leaps in productivity growth in many sectors, or at least in a few large ones, so that productivity jumps in the economy as a whole. Finally, adoption and reorganization within and across sectors must be driven by competition, which incentivizes firms to innovate and helps spur technological diffusion.

Not all productivity growth is created equal, however. Productivity growth can be achieved through gains in the volume or value of outputs for a given number of hours worked, or it can come about as a result of a reduction in hours worked for a given output. Often both happen at the same time. But it is when the former exceeds the latter that a virtuous cycle is created in which innovation and investment generate growth in employment and wages, which in turn generates demand for increased (or more valuable) output. This is what happened during the period from 1995 to 2005. When the latter source of productivity growth exceeds the former, however, a vicious cycle results in which firms reduce labor costs faster than they grow the volume or value of their outputs, which in turn puts pressure on employment and incomes.

POST-PANDEMIC POTENTIAL

The pandemic has primed advanced economies for another period of rapid productivity growth. It is too early to say for sure whether such growth will be the product of a virtuous or a vicious cycle, but signs point to the former. Despite uncertainty, stress, and plummeting economic activity in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, many firms boldly deployed and used new general-purpose technology—especially digital technology—in ways that have driven virtuous productivity gains in the past. In October 2020, we surveyed 900 C-suite executives in various sectors and countries and found that many had digitized their business activities 20 to 25 times as fast as they had previously thought possible. Often, this meant shifting their businesses to online channels, since roughly 60 percent of the firms we surveyed experienced a significant increase in customer demand for online goods and services as a result of the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, e-commerce was forecast to account for less than a quarter of all U.S. retail sales by 2024. But during the first two months of the COVID-19 crisis, e-commerce’s share of retail sales more than doubled, from 16 percent to 33 percent. And that growth did not just reflect brick-and-mortar firms setting up shop online for the first time. Firms that were already highly digitized before the pandemic significantly expanded their online capabilities to meet the surge in demand. They also reorganized their operations, including their logistics, to complement what they were doing digitally—for example, by expanding their direct-to-home delivery capabilities.

Businesses also strove to become more efficient and agile. In Europe and North America, nearly half of the respondents to our survey said that they had reduced their operating expenditure as a share of revenue between December 2019 and December 2020. Two-thirds of senior executives said they had increased investment in automation and artificial intelligence, whether to help warehouse and logistics operations cope with higher e-commerce volumes or to enable manufacturing plants to meet surging demand. Many companies used technology to reduce the physical density of their workplaces or to enable contactless service—for instance, by expanding self-checkout in grocery stores and pharmacies and employing online ordering apps for restaurants and hotels. Other businesses, such as meatpacking and poultry plants, accelerated the deployment of robotics to reduce their need for labor. If there was one lesson from the pandemic, it was that digital capability and resilience go hand in hand.

The pandemic has primed advanced economies for another period of rapid productivity growth.

But even as the arrival of vaccines has made it possible to imagine a return to relative normalcy in parts of the developed world, continued digitization and the adoption of other technological innovations promise to deliver still more productivity gains. The largest of these gains—roughly an additional two percentage points per year—could come in the health-care, construction, information technology, retail, pharmaceutical, and banking sectors. In health care, for instance, accelerating the use of telemedicine beyond the pandemic could drive incremental productivity growth for years. According to one recent U.S. poll, 76 percent of patients expressed interest in using telemedicine in the future, and industry experts project that the services for 20 percent of health-care spending could be delivered virtually—up from 11 percent before the pandemic. Other sectors, including automotive, travel, and logistics, show less—but still substantial—potential for productivity growth as a result of more flexible task scheduling, leaner operations, and smarter procurement.

Overall, these innovations and organizational changes could accelerate productivity growth by around one percentage point per year between now and 2024 in the United States and the six large European economies that we analyzed (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom). This gain would result in a productivity growth rate twice as high as the rate after the 2008 global financial crisis, and in the United States, it would expand per capita GDP by roughly $3,500 by 2024. That would be a stunning outcome, but it will hinge on continued technology adoption by firms and the maintenance of robust demand.

Even more productivity gains could be on the horizon thanks to other advancements. The accelerating revolution in biology, for instance, could transform sectors from health care and agriculture to consumer goods, energy, and materials. Biological innovation has already enabled the rapid development of new vaccines for COVID-19. Equally impressive revolutions in energy could make possible the widespread adoption of solar and wind power, especially in light of recent progress toward better (and cheaper) batteries. Artificial intelligence is also advancing rapidly, but is still a long way from being deployed widely across companies and sectors. When and if that happens, the productivity gains could be enormous.

FOLLOW THE DIGITAL LEADER

Future gains in productivity, even those that boost overall growth, are likely to be uneven. We analyzed metrics that have the potential to unleash future productivity growth—such as research-and-development spending, revenue, capital expenditures (including digital expenses), and mergers and acquisitions—and found that especially in the United States, a small number of large superstar firms accounted for a disproportionately large share of the activity in all these categories. From the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2020, U.S. superstars (defined as the top ten percent of firms by profit) saw much shallower declines in capital expenditures and revenue than did other companies. During the same period, U.S. superstars spent $2.6 billion more on R & D than they did the previous year, while all other firms spent just $1.4 billion more.

If this investment, innovation, and technology adoption gap between superstars and the rest of the large firms and smaller, less profitable firms persists, any post-pandemic acceleration in productivity growth could fall short of its potential. Small and medium-sized enterprises have been hit disproportionately hard by the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, many of them are unable to make big investments in future productivity and are therefore liable to fall even further behind the superstars. This is what happened in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, when only a minority of companies achieved productivity growth.

But there is room for cautious optimism about the ability of non-superstars to close some of the gap. Before the pandemic, the superstars tended to be highly digitized and innovative in their managerial approaches, as well as more profitable and resilient. They were therefore better placed to weather and even take advantage of the shock. But as the hardest-hit firms and sectors recover, and as early digital adaptors demonstrate the enormous potential of these technologies, many of the digital laggards could begin to catch up. Indeed, in another survey of executives we conducted in December 2020, about 75 percent of respondents in North America and Europe said they expected investment in new technologies to accelerate substantially between 2020 and 2024, up from 55 percent between 2014 and 2019. This expected uptick was similar across firm sizes.

A robot running tests on a COVID-19 patient in Tanta, Egypt, November 2020
A robot running tests on a COVID-19 patient in Tanta, Egypt, November 2020
Mohamed Abd El Ghany / TPX Images of the Day / Reuters

Another reason for optimism is that in 2020, a year that saw the darkest economic days of the pandemic, 24 percent more new businesses were created in the United States than in 2019. Europe lagged behind the United States on this metric, with new business creation staying roughly flat in 2020 in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom and declining by more than 15 percent in Italy and Spain. If the American increase in business dynamism persists, however, it should contribute to more productivity growth.

Investment, innovation, and technology adoption are only one-half of the virtuous cycle of productivity growth, however. The other half is demand for the expanded output that results—in other words, income growth from increased productivity has to flow to people who will spend that additional money. In the short term, the outlook for demand is good, especially for countries that have made progress toward vaccinating their populations and could be among the first to open up their economies. Pent-up demand and savings from the pandemic could be unleashed all at once, resulting in a strong initial bounce in demand led by consumers. In the United States, President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic support bill should push demand even higher.

In the medium term, the outlook for demand is also relatively solid, although it will depend on the size, deployment, and longevity of government spending. In the United States, Biden now has set his sights on a large infrastructure package. As his administration shifts its focus from economic relief to investment in productive areas, it could also increase productivity growth by raising demand to match potential supply, creating a high-pressure economy, that is, one with low unemployment and high growth. The outlook in continental Europe, where large-scale government economic support is harder to coordinate, is less certain. Nonetheless, the EU has put in place an unprecedented plan totaling some $900 billion to boost investment in the digital and green energy transitions.

But government spending on this scale will likely be time-limited, making the long-term outlook for demand less rosy. Moreover, long-neglected problems, including the falling share of firms’ income going to workers, rising inequality, and the long-term decline in private investment, could drag down demand. Roughly 60 percent of the post-pandemic productivity gains that we estimate could come from innovations and organizational restructuring—the one percentage point of acceleration per year between now and 2024—would stem from firm-level measures, such as automation, designed to cut labor and other business costs. Unless firms do more to boost the volume or value of their output and help workers transition by acquiring new skills, the drive for efficiency will risk generating productivity gains through a vicious, rather than a virtuous, cycle, undermining wages and jobs and weakening consumption-driven demand and investment.

A NEW AGE OF DYNAMISM?

What can businesses and governments do to capitalize on the positive short- and medium-term outlook for productivity and to improve the long-term outlook? First, they should work to speed up technology adoption and managerial innovation, helping these changes spread within and across sectors. As the recovery begins, firms that have until recently been focused on crisis management and survival should follow the lead of superstar firms by investing in technology and reorganization. The superstars can assist in this process by supporting their broader ecosystems, in particular by doing business with smaller firms that offer complementary products and services. Governments can support the process, as well, by investing in research and development.

Policymakers should also seek to strengthen competition and business dynamism. In a healthy economy, the firms that add the most value prosper and grow, while the firms that add the least value shrink or disappear: so-called creative destruction. Policymakers can revive and reinforce this natural sorting process by revising competition rules, bankruptcy procedures, and product and labor-market regulations.

Governments and businesses should also aim to bolster demand and encourage business investment, the other half of the virtuous productivity cycle. As government spending tapers off, businesses should play their part by creating broad-based revenue growth while also finding efficiencies. Additionally, they should spend more on upgrading the skills of their employees, helping them make the most of technological and organizational innovations while also reducing inequality and unemployment. Governments can incentivize such investments in human capital through tax credits that encourage retraining and by shifting the tax burden away from labor income and toward capital income.

But productivity growth isn’t everything, especially as it is measured and projected today. It does not capture important dimensions of individual and social well-being that may be significantly augmented in the post-pandemic environment. For instance, the spread of digital technologies could foster more inclusive patterns of growth, and telemedicine could deliver timely primary health-care services to millions in the developing world. Nor do measures of productivity growth account for some of the negative externalities associated with modern innovations, which will compound over time and profoundly affect people’s quality of life.

What is perhaps most notable is that productivity as it is currently measured does not account for climate change. To mitigate that risk around the world, significant investment in technologies that make energy greener and more efficient is needed. Some of this investment will increase productivity growth. Electric vehicles, for instance, are not just good for the environment; they also require less labor to produce and so raise productivity. To the extent that energy-efficient investments divert resources and talent away from other, even more potentially productive areas of the economy, they could dampen short-term productivity growth. Over the long term, however, their effect will be positive, since they will prevent a dramatic decline in future productivity, among other catastrophic outcomes. Many of these gains may never be captured by the standard productivity measures, since the gains will represent a downturn that never occurred. But some of the productivity gains could eventually be captured, especially those related to infrastructure designed to help the economy adapt to climate change.

As they prepare to exit the pandemic, governments and businesses alike will have to balance these short- and long-term goals. Yet even now, as COVID-19 continues to exact a human and economic toll, a potential upside appears to be emerging. After years of sluggish productivity and economic growth following the 2008 global financial crisis, COVID-19 has triggered a frenzy of technological and organizational innovation. Whether this frenzy leads to a new age of dynamism will depend on what governments and businesses do to sustain a virtuous cycle of ever-greater productivity.

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  • JAMES MANYIKA is Chair and Director of the McKinsey Global Institute.
  • MICHAEL SPENCE, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, is Philip H. Knight Professor and Dean Emeritus at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
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