Living close to work

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke tweeted earlier this week about the ability of workers to live near their place of work:

https://twitter.com/BetoORourke/status/1171238016289034240

There is a lot to think about here. A little historical context: most workers lived very close to work up until the Industrial Revolution and the urbanization that came with it. The separation of home and work life is a relatively recent phenomenon for humans.

A little data on commute times. The 2017 American Community Survey showed the average commute time was 26.9 minutes. Commuting time can differ quite a bit across metropolitan regions:

McKenzie says the East Stroudsburg, Pa. metro area has among the longest average one-way travel time, clocking in at about 37.9 minutes. The U.S. Census Bureau contacted NPR with new information to include the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area, which has a travel time of 37 minutes. Travel times for the two metro areas are not statistically different from one another.

Among the shortest average travel times, usually less than 20 minutes, were in Cheyenne, Wyo. and Grand Forks, N.D.

There is an academic term that addresses this issue: spatial mismatch. In this theory, jobs available to lower-income workers are located far from their residences. Imagine a typical well-off suburb: can the workers at the local Target or McDonald’s or gas station or hotel live in that community or nearby? Patterns of residential segregation and exclusionary zoning can mean that cheaper or affordable housing is not available close to certain jobs. This can be a more hidden form of inequality as longer trips to work mean less time for other activities.

This might get trickier for people with more resources and the options of where they want to live. A common American trade-off for the middle-class gets at this: should a homeowner move further out from work to purchase a larger home or live closer to work and job centers (which can include urban downtowns as well as suburban job centers dozens of miles away from urban downtowns)? Is a shorter commute worth having if it comes with paying more money for (possibly smaller) housing?

And perhaps the wealthy can truly live the closest to work if they so choose. Some of them might even locate their business or firm to where they are. Others might have multiple homes, including ones significant distances away where they can get to work by means not available to many such a private jets and helicopters.

So perhaps the issue here is not really living close to work but deeper issues involving mixed-income neighborhoods and moving away from resources (income and wealth) determining where people can life. O’Rourke gets into this a bit more, calling for smarter and denser cities that he says will lead to numerous positive outcomes – which could include shorter commutes.

Celebrating the labor of those who build McMansions?

The construction of single-family homes employs many Americans. When demand for homes drops, such as in the late 2000s with the burst housing bubble, many are out of work until the housing market heats up again.

Critics of McMansions would argue such homes should not be built. Instead, the land could be put to better use or developers and communities should focus on building other kinds of housing units that do not suffer from the same flaws.

But, the construction of McMansions employs people. Developers may build them to make more money than they could by building starter homes and communities may approve them in order to keep property values higher. And these homes provide work. Is this the case where a job is not worth it if the outcome is an undesirable product (in the eyes of McMansion critics)?

On this Labor Day, it would be interesting to consider how those who construct McMansions might be employed constructing other buildings. For many who construct McMansions, it could be hard to turn down the work if other opportunities are not present or the job pays okay. Should part of the fight against McMansions also include efforts to address labor issues?

An incomplete way to frame it: Lake County loses jobs and HQs to Chicago

The shift of headquarters and jobs from Lake County to downtown Chicago leaves a number of suburban buildings vacant:

The far north suburban county is bracing for the loss of about 2,700 office jobs by early next year, from prominent companies Walgreens Boots Alliance, Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. and Mondelez International…

History indicates corporate campuses in Deerfield and nearby suburbs — and the homes and businesses those high-paying office jobs support — can weather the storm. But the challenge has only intensified as more companies move jobs to downtown Chicago, in pursuit of younger workers who want to live in the city…

McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, Motorola Mobility, Hillshire Brands, Gogo, Wilson Sporting Goods, Motorola Solutions and Beam Suntory are examples of companies that have moved their headquarters downtown in the past few years. Others, such as Walgreens, have established large offices in the city while retaining suburban headquarters…

A 2013 report outlining the county’s economic development strategy said losing any of the larger employers in the biopharma industry — such as Takeda — would be “devastating” to the county.

Such moves have real consequences for suburban areas. Filling and/or reviving large office parks and suburban campuses can be difficult. The loss of jobs and tax revenue can hurt.

At the same time, a story like this can reinforce notions that when Lake County loses jobs to the city of Chicago, this is a bad outcome. When the suburbs lose jobs to the big city or vice versa, someone is winning and someone is losing. Not necessarily: the region is still benefiting as the cities and suburbs depend on each other. From the perspective of the whole region, there is good news here:

-The fact that these companies want to stay in the Chicago region, whether in the suburbs or downtown, hints at the economic vitality and amenities of the whole area. With the bad news of Illinois’ financial issues, big companies are not leaving the state en masse.

-Other parts of the article hint that while the vacancy rate for office space is high in Lake County, there is still some business demand for these headquarters and campuses. Some locations might require more work to find a sizable replacement but they are not necessarily sitting empty for years.

-This presents opportunities – perhaps unwanted – for suburban municipalities to rethink suburban office parks and campuses. Rather than waiting for the big company to use the whole property, these could be future mixed-use sites featuring office, retail, recreational, and residential space. Rather than rely on single employers, suburbs could work to tie these campuses into the larger fabric of their community.

This could become a bigger problem if suburban properties stay vacant for a long time but these changes seem fairly normal for now: businesses move locations within a region to chase what they think are attractive options for workers (particularly young ones) and their bottom line. Perhaps more importantly, the suburb versus city battle over prestigious headquarters does not need to sour relations or perceptions. The region as a whole can continue to thrive even if there are changes to address within the metropolitan area.

Mantra of the gig economy: “Experiences driving with Uber may vary”

A radio ad from Uber for drivers ends with this disclaimer: “Experiences driving with Uber may vary.”

Is this here for legal purposes? To accurately describe the variability in the position?

Jobs like these are often billed as easy ways for someone to earn some extra money: the drivers gets to pick when they want to work, they get to use their own vehicle, and the position could appeal who those who like to drive and/or meet people. This reminds me of Dave Ramsay’s common advice that those with debt should pick up a second job delivering pizzas to help bring in extra money. The flip side is that they may not be able to make that much money. They might have some unruly customers. The job puts wear and tear on their vehicle. The position may not last for very long or someone could be an Uber driver for years. Can someone make a decent living driving for Uber? Or, do they also need to deliver some Amazon packages, do freelance writing or web editing, complete some TaskRabbit jobs, and be a cashier somewhere to make ends meet?

Overall, the disclaimer strikes me as a pretty succinct way to summarize what supposedly is the wave of the future: workers taking on a variety of jobs as they so choose. I would guess Uber is not trying to engage in such metacommentary yet it can be hard to pin down many corporations on exactly how they view their employees or contractors.

Two-thirds of Chicago area jobs in the suburbs

The demise of Sears and its suburban headquarters, once famously downtown in a building that was the tallest in the world, does not mean that suburban jobs are disappearing:

Sears’ move to northwest suburban Hoffman Estates symbolized a trend: The economic ascendance of Chicago’s suburbs, which even in the early 1990s accounted for more than 60 percent of the region’s jobs.

At first glance, that dominance appears to be slipping as companies like McDonald’s make headline-grabbing moves back to the city from leafy suburban campuses.

But it would be wrong to point to Sears’ latest struggles, which eased Wednesday when the company’s chairman won a bankruptcy auction that prevented a liquidation of Sears, and conclude that the suburbs are down and out.

People working in the suburbs still provide two out of every three Chicago-area jobs, according to data provided by regional planners.

While the emphasis of this article is on the suburban Sears campus, the suburban jobs numbers stuck out to me. There are (at least) two ways to interpret the number that two-thirds of the jobs in the Chicago region are in the suburbs:

  1. Of course the majority of jobs in the Chicago region are in the suburbs: more than two-thirds of the region’s population lives in the suburbs. All those residents both help generate nearby jobs with their various consumer needs (from retail to food to building and construction) and help fill those jobs.
  2. This is a surprising figure. Chicago is a leading global city; how could so many jobs be in the suburbs when what really matters in the region is the strength of the Loop and nearby neighborhoods? Plus, it would be better if employers started in the city or moved back to the city to help create a strong base for the region as well as take advantage of the city’s economies of scale (including mass transit access) and cultural opportunities.

These figures are part of a larger trend that I think is underappreciated in the rise of American suburbs: the suburbs are jobs centers, not just a collection of bedroom communities. While the stereotypical American suburb is a community of subdivisions with occasional businesses, the suburbs are full of companies and firms doing all sorts of things. And it has been this way for decades.

Housing bubble fallout: lost jobs in land subdivision

The long-lasting consequences of the housing crisis of the late 2000s continues: an analysis of the American industries losing the most jobs by percentage includes the land subdivision sector.

9. Land subdivision

• Employment change 2008-17: -49.3%
• Employment total: 40,207
• Wage growth 2008-17: +35.5%
• Avg. annual wage: $71,744

The U.S. housing market is beginning to return to normal following the Great Recession and housing market crash. Housing starts in 2017 were similar to 2007 levels, before the crash. The land subdivision industry, which divides land into parcels for housing and other purposes, suffered as a result of the market’s struggles. As of 2017, industry employment is just about half of what it was a decade before.

This was never a large sector but a drop in jobs of nearly 50% is substantial.

Since I know little about what land subdivision requires on a daily basis, I wonder if this decrease is primarily because of a slowdown in housing starts or are there other significant changes in the industry such as new efficiencies and approaches?

For what ends do sociologists labor?

I recently gave a short presentation in a training seminar regarding introducing first year students to different disciplinary perspectives. For each of the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, I described methods and goals. For the goals of the social sciences, I put down “just society” and “social wrongs righted.” One of my colleagues asked me a question about this: “Do the people at the top R1 schools adhere to these goals?” Just having returned from the ASA meetings in Philadelphia and thinking about some of the things I saw there, I said yes.

This is a good question to consider on Labor Day. What are sociologists after when they work? Here are some options:

-just society/social wrong righted: a mindset devoted to improving society, sometimes attributed to an activist approach though American sociology has a deep tradition of this (even if it was shunted into social work and not promoted as much at leading schools)

-knowing more about the social world: this quest for knowledge and a better understanding of whatever phenomena is under study could be at the root of every academic enterprise

-a way to achieve status and power: the field may be limited be compared to others but academic titles and academic merits (published articles, name recognition, grants, school, etc.) still provide a certain status

-the joy of teaching and mentoring students: these expectations likely differ dramatically across institutions (let alone personalities) but there can be both immediate and long-term gratification in making a difference in the life of students

-a satisfying way to occupy one’s mind and fulfill intellectual curiosity

I suppose individual sociologists might be able to pursue unique combinations of these five options within their own experiences and institutional contexts. Yet, on the whole, I’m pretty comfortable asserting sociology and other social sciences want to make the world a better place.