A service economy and shrinking workforce is the driving force of low economic growth

Extinction Rebellion’s fortnight of protests have only hardened existing beliefs and positions on both sides of the debate.

But a book by Dietrich Vollrath of the University of Houston suggests that there may be much broader support for a low or even zero growth agenda than even XR might imagine.

Vollrath does not address this question directly. His work is an attempt to explain why economic growth in the West has been so feeble over the past 10 or 15 years.

The title of the book summarises Vollrath’s message: “Fully Grown: Why a Stagnant Economy is a Sign of Success”.

In the decade or so since the financial crisis, GDP growth in the Western economies has been unprecedentedly low by historical standards.  

Most policy makers and commentators view this with concern. However, the author argues that we should not be worried. On the contrary, for him, it is an unequivocally Good Thing.

This is because, in Vollrath’s view, very low growth can be explained by the preferences of individuals. Implicitly, in the West we have already chosen the path of low growth.

His analysis is based on the standard growth model in economic theory. Growth in output depends upon growth in the two main inputs into the productive process – labour and capital, along with innovation.

Vollrath uses the more technical term “human capital”. He constructs a sophisticated index, which suggests that its value has even fallen since 2000 in the United States.

A key reason for this is that people increasingly prefer more leisure rather than more income by working – a point highlighted by the current debate about working from home after the pandemic.

The improvement in women’s rights decades ago enabled women to choose both to have smaller families and to go out to work. The expansion of the latter by the Baby Boomers has come to an end in the 21st century. And smaller families have led to lower growth in the workforce.

Vollrath also revives an important argument made over 50 years ago by Nobel Laureate William Baumol. It is inherently easier to raise productivity – and therefore growth – in the manufacturing sector than it is in services.  

There are several serious counter arguments which Vollrath dismisses too lightly. For example, we may be suffering a monumental and persistent hangover from the financial crisis, which is just depressing our animal spirits, as Keynes once put it. National account statisticians may not be placing enough value on innovative products such as smartphones.

But it is nevertheless an intriguing book. The collective consequences of our individual choices on what we spend our money on, how many hours and weeks we want to work, and how many children to have – these all translate eventually into very low growth. Have we all done XR’s work for them?

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 8th September 2021
Image: Flickr

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e: aobyrne@volterra.co.uk
t: +44 020 8878 6333

Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

e: eevans@volterra.co.uk
t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.