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.

Lakewood, CA caught between suburban housing or job choices

A profile of Lakewood, California, a paradigmatic postwar suburb, suggests the community is no longer home to numerous suburban dreams:

So they settled in Lakewood, among the rows of modest little ranch-style houses, repeated in one of 20 or so iterations, interspersed with shopping centers, parks and schools. It’s a landscape that today appears completely unremarkable, but half a century ago embodied a powerful vision of the good life in California…

“The promise of Lakewood was enough of the good things of an everyday life — a simple house, a yard, infrastructure of schools and churches and shopping centers,” said D.J. Waldie, an author and former city historian who wrote the book, “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about life in Lakewood from the 1950s, when the subdivision exploded out of lima bean fields into a suburb of 70,000…

Those solid middle-class jobs nearby have shipped out. To afford to buy a home here, a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov — spending more of their day in ever-worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching Little League or exploring the wonders of California.

The promise of places like Lakewood has been carved down into little pieces with Californians forced to pick between them: choose the house or choose the nearby job, but seldom both.

The issue discussed in the article is a common one: the locations of jobs and affordable or even somewhat affordable housing are not necessarily close. Many metropolitan regions do not have the infrastructure to provide options besides driving for the important suburb to suburb trips that make up the largest segment of trips. And to some degree, these locations can change. When Lakewood was developed, how many people predicted the true multinucleated nature of the Los Angeles region?

Certainly, more affordable housing is needed. At the same time, is there hope of spreading out good jobs or introducing new jobs in more residential communities? The typical bedroom suburb does not have to remain as such.

Speculation: more Americans choose to pursue unretirement to find meaning

Various data points show more Americans continuing to work even when do not need the money at retirement age:

Unretirement is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired…

Even more people might resume working if they could find attractive options. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen said. “About half said yes.”

Why go back to work? We hear endless warnings about Americans having failed to save enough, and the need for income does motivate some returning workers. But Dr. Maestas, using longitudinal data from the national Health and Retirement Study, has found that the decision to resume working doesn’t usually stem from unexpected financial problems or health expenses…

Researchers note that older workers have different needs. “Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older jobseekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work. They’re less concerned about benefits. They can think about broader things, like whether the work is meaningful and stimulating.”

One of the primary ways that adult Americans find meaning is in their jobs. Not only does a job help pay the bills, a job has become a reflection of who you are. Think of that normal question that leads off many an adult conversation: “What do you do?” With a shift away from manufacturing and manual labor jobs, service and white-collar jobs can encourage the idea that our personality and skills are intimately tied up with our profession.
Put this emphasis on an identity rooted in a job or career together with a declining engagement in civic groups and a mistrust in institutions. Americans are choosing to interact less with a variety of social groups and this means they have fewer opportunities to find an identity based in those organizations. We are told to be our own people.
Imagine a different kind of retirement than the one depicted in this article: older Americans finish a long working career and then find time to get involved with extended family life or various causes, secular and religious, where they can provide both expertise and labor. Where would many congregations or civic groups be without the contributions of those who are retired and now can devote some more time to the public good? What if the child care needs that many younger families face be met with grandparents who could consistently help? What if retired Americans could regularly mentor children and teenagers who would benefit from wise counsel and a listening ear? That is not to say there are not plenty of retirees who do these things; however, this approach involves a broader look at life satisfaction that goes beyond a paying job.

Amazon jobs vs. no jobs in American cities and suburbs

With Amazon expanding in many locations across the United States, are these the kinds of jobs communities should seek? Here is the conclusion of one recent discussion of the issue:

It’s true that cities desperate for jobs may find it difficult to attract companies if they pass minimum-wage mandates or other labor laws. But the alternative, it seems, is jobs that don’t create a middle-class lifestyle for residents, which in turn affects local spending, the housing market, the tax base, and leads to a poor standard of living. Many cities, San Bernardino included, are calculating that any job creation is good news. They may soon find that with Amazon, that calculation does not apply.

This is not a new issue although Amazon might be the most visible manifestation of concerns right at the moment. Walmart has and still does face such questions. Fast food and retail jobs as larger categories attract this scrutiny at points.

For two reasons, I do not see most American communities during down these jobs, even if they are not ideal or even good positions of employment.

  1. Every politician from the local to federal level wants to promote job creation. It is still hard to have a deeper conversation about the kinds of jobs being created. What tends to matter are the numbers. If you are the politician who can claim adding jobs (and very rarely is this the result of one person or a short process), you have a powerful political weapon.
  2. What is the alternative to not accepting these jobs? Companies might move right over the border. This happened in Chicago when they insisted on certain with Walmart. The company responded by opening locations right over the border and the jobs and revenues went to other communities. If a community turns down jobs, will they be able to attract others? Until we have either regional cooperation where sets of communities set these conditions or states pass overarching regulations (or a third option of universal basic income?), individual communities will be forced to make tough decisions: promoting less than ideal jobs or possibly having no jobs.

This issue will continue whether with Amazon or other companies.

Thriving construction industry in 2018 will primarily build for wealthier firms/residents?

The recovery from the housing bubble and Great Recession of the late 2000s continues in the construction industry:

For all of 2017, construction added 210,000 jobs, a 35 percent increase over 2016.

Construction spending is also soaring, rising more than expected in November to a record $1.257 trillion, according to the Commerce Department. That was up 2.4 percent annually. Spending increased across all sectors of real estate, commercial and residential, with particular strength in private construction projects. The only weakness was in government construction spending.

Construction firms are clearly looking to hire more workers. Three-quarters of them said they plan to increase payrolls in 2018, according to a new survey from the Associated General Contractors of America. Industry optimism for all types of construction, measured by the ratio of those who expected the market to expand versus those who expected it to contract, hit a record high…

Contractors are most optimistic about construction in the office market, which has seen little action since the recession. Transportation, retail, warehouse and lodging were also strong in the survey. Respondents were less encouraged by the multifamily apartment sector, which is just coming off a building boom.

Although this article does not say much about this topic, it would not surprise me if most of the gains in new structures in 2018 tend to go to (1) wealthier areas and (2) wealthier occupants (whether companies/organizations or residents). A thriving construction sector could theoretically float all boats but it sounds like the bifurcated housing market (and perhaps office and commercial as well) will continue.

It is interesting to see that the office market could see some significant construction. How much of that new office space comes at the expense of older structures that are less desirable because of less popular locations or because rehab costs would be too high?

 

Trying out 8 jobs before the academic CV began

Inspired by a recent conversation with a class of first-year students about finding one’s vocation as well as a colleague’s post, I’ll list the eight jobs I held before starting graduate school in sociology. Even though I might not be able to pinpoint the exact details here, I learned something from each job alongside also ruling out jobs that I could not see myself doing for a long period. I did need to earn some money but this was also an interesting path toward ruling out vocational options – not all job trials or internships need to be “successful” in the sense of confirming something positive. Here is the list of paid positions:

  1. Server in the dining room of a retirement community for roughly 2.5 years. I also did some more independent work where I took food over and served it in the dining rooms of the attached assisted living facility (this position had less pleasant hours with weekend 8 hour shifts starting at 7 AM). I enjoyed a lot of the interactions with residents.
  2. At the end of high school, I wanted more than the part-time hours I had as a server so I started working at Target. I lasted one month but it is an interesting introduction to retail and customer service.
  3. Working in the college cafeteria scanning IDs of the students coming in and doing some cleaning after the meals were over. I did this for about two years.
  4. Working for the college radio station. It usually did not amount to many hours each week but over four years I worked in pretty much every job available at the station – disc jockey, sports play-by-play, sports studio, news writer and reader, talk show host, production manager, promotions at concerts – and enjoyed it enough to later work at the station again.
  5. One year as the layout editor for the college yearbook.
  6. One semester as the editor of the Arts and Entertainment section of the college yearbook.
  7. Two-plus summers in a warehouse for a book publisher. The first summer involved picking items off a line and passing them the conveyor belt. The second summer plus a few months in the fall involved moving up to packing boxes and then driving a forklift after some of the other kids went back to college.
  8. Two summers working at in an in-patient mental health unit, the first summer as an intern and the second as a psych counselor. An eye-opening position all-around with people doing valuable and difficult work.

This is probably not a well-worn path to becoming a professor but it did help me see a number of other fields.

Employers now looking for millennial workers in denser suburbs

Even as some companies go to the big cities looking for young talent, others are headed to denser suburbs to find millennials with families who are attracted to suburbia:

Fresh college graduates might be attracted to downtown bars and carless commutes, but these days, for older millennials starting families and taking out mortgages, a job in the suburbs has its own appeal. “What people find is that the city offers a high quality of life at the income extremes,” said Lamphere, who is chief executive of Van Vlissingen & Co., a real-estate developer based in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire, Ill. “The city is a difficult place for the average working family.”

Many employers, hoping to attract millennials as they age, are trying to marry the best of urban and suburban life, choosing sites near public transit and walkable suburban main streets. “What’s desired downtown is being transferred to suburban environments to attract a suburban workforce,” said Scott Marshall, an executive managing director for investor leasing at CBRE Group…

None of this means the suburbs will supplant central cities as job hubs. After all, jobs traditionally based in cities-jobs in professional industries as well as the service jobs that support them-are growing faster than those typically based outside of them, according to Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed.

At the same time, Americans are more likely to live in the suburbs today than they were in 2000, and even the young, affluent ones drawn to cities tend to move once their kids reach school age, Kolko’s research shows. Many of those workers will suffer long commutes into the city center. Others will opt for jobs closer to their suburban homes.

Which of these two patterns is more true: (1) employers chase locations in a cyclical nature with more moving to the suburbs after World War II and then returning to the city or some cities in more recent years as certain urban locations became trendy and/or desirable or (2) employers since World War II have regularly gone back and forth between cities and suburbs depending on their employee needs and changes within metropolitan regions. Since I do not study this exact topic, I do not know which explanation the data matches (or if there is even a third option). Yet, certain interested parties – the media, city and suburban leaders, and companies often like to push a particular narrative to help their side look better.

Indeed, this article suggests a third option: employers want to find millennials who want both the suburban life – nice, safe, quiet communities – and the urban life – exciting cultural scene. Certain suburbs do offer this kind of lifestyle and some academics have argued this is the way the suburbs are going: even as some will still be interested in spreading the edges of suburbia further and further out, at least a few suburbs will become denser and influential small cities. I’m not sure this is entirely tied to millennials as such locations could appeal to older suburbanites who want a more walkable area and may not require single-family homes.

In other words, the jury is still out on this as a possible trend.