Should we care that Apple pays its retail store employees relatively little money?

The New York Times has a long piece about what Apple pays its retail store workers. Here are some of the details:

About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year. They work inside the world’s fastest growing industry, for the most valuable company, run by one of the country’s most richly compensated chief executives, Tim Cook. Last year, he received stock grants, which vest over a 10-year period, that at today’s share price would be worth more than $570 million.

And though Apple is unparalleled as a retailer, when it comes to its lowliest workers, the company is a reflection of the technology industry as a whole…

“In the service sector, companies provide a little bit of training and hope their employees leave after a few years,” says Arne L. Kalleberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. “Especially now, given the number of college kids willing to work for low wages.”

By the standards of retailing, Apple offers above average pay — well above the minimum wage of $7.25 and better than the Gap, though slightly less than Lululemon, the yoga and athletic apparel chain, where sales staff earn about $12 an hour. The company also offers very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the chance to buy company stock, as well as Apple products, at a discount…

“It’s interesting to ask why we find it offensive that Wal-Mart pays a single mother $9 an hour, but we don’t find it offensive that Apple pays a young man $12 an hour,” Mr. Osterman said. “For each company, the logic is the same — there is a line of people eager to take the job. In effect, we’re saying that our value judgments depend on the circumstances of the employee, not just supply and demand of the labor market.”

I find two things very interesting from the quoted sections above:

1. This is a reminder that we now live in the era of the service economy. While Apple may generate tremendous profits and have a really high stock price, the majority of its jobs are low wage. This is what our economy looks like today: many jobs are relatively low-trust and low-paying and not everyone will have an opportunity to parlay it into a better, more fulfilling job. One could criticize Apple for such policies but they are hardly the only company doing this and it appears to be effective for generating profits.

2. The difference in perception between Apple and Walmart is indeed intriguing. One company has a better image than the other. Both rely on similar methods as they look for ways to make their products in a more cost effective way (though they aren’t exactly operating in the same price levels in the market – it will be some time before we see Apple computers sold at Walmart), have a number of jobs overseas (or at least their suppliers do), and are looking for ways to maximize their market share. It would be interesting to know if any of the recent reports about Apple employees in China (see this NYT story about Foxconn) has influenced people’s perceptions of Apple as well as altered their consumption habits.

This story got me thinking: what would happen if US Apple retail store workers decided to unionize and demanded better wages (perhaps even a living wage)? Apparently there is an effort underway to unionize the stores:

“People have definitely listed [pay] as a top issue,” said Moll, who started the Apple Retail Workers Union in an attempt to unionize U.S. store workers. “Because of our low wages we often can’t afford to buy the technology that we sell.”

Would Apple strongly fight these efforts and if so, how much negative attention would they receive?

Hochschild highlights new individualized service jobs like “wantologist”

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has written a new book, The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times, that explores the rise of jobs to meet our individualized needs:

Don’t know what you want out of life? No problem. Hire a wantologist!

This new profession actually exists in 2012. Just fork over a little cash (a couple hundred an hour or so) and this individual will help you figure out your most important goals in life – and help you get closer to achieving them.

Sound like a bunch of hooey? Consider Esther James, a wantologist in San Jose, California. She has a PhD in psychology from NYU, practiced for twenty years as a Jungian psychologist, trained as an executive coach – earning $250 an hour – and has now transitioned into full-time life coaching in the wake of the economic downturn, as she explained to sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.

Hochschild, based at the University of California, Berkeley, profiles James and many other personal service providers in an enlightening new book, The Outsourced Self, which describes how the market has risen to meet the needs of increasingly harried and needy Americans…

Hochschild puts these out-of-the-blue service professions in the broader context of a society right now that “undermines community, disparages government, marginalizes nonprofits, and believes in the superiority of what’s for sale.” As she told The Fiscal Times in an interview, “The wantologist’s profession is fledgling at the moment, but it’s very real – it’s its own speciality. I’ve seen the ‘wantology workbooks.’ I’ve talked to the clients. Services like this are only going to proliferate. A lot of things that seemed weird yesterday aren’t weird today.”

The themes of this book sound similar to Hochschild’s previous books, The Managed Heart and The Second Shift, that also address the intersection of individuals and a changing social context. In this new book, it sounds like Hochschild is arguing that we lose something as a society when important individual tasks are outsourced to free up the time for us to do “better” things.

The interview with Hochschild is worth reading in full but there would seem to be another aspect to this shift that is not addressed. Wouldn’t these sorts of services primarily cater to those with the economic resources to pay for it? Hochschild mentions how dating websites could also fall into this category (and these are relatively accessible) but in order to hire a life coach or personal organizer or “wantologist,” you would have to have some extra money. Or, perhaps these services could be quickly becoming “necessary,” meaning that people have to cut back elsewhere in order to achieve certain priorities. For example, this might include a family that feels it is a necessity to hire a college application consultant for their high school student since college is such an important decision and predictor of chances later in life. If these services are becoming more normal, than it could be another marker between social classes: can you afford to outsource some of the mundane or necessary tasks of lives off to others? And who is expected to work in these service jobs? Perhaps this is simply a more palatable, market-based solution to the issue of the wealthy hiring servants in the past.

This also reminds me of two other things:

1. Could this be viewed as an example of extended cognition, the idea that we as humans are effective at utilizing other resources to tackle certain issues for us (even as basic as writing ideas down on paper so we don’t have to devote extra brain space to remembering these things) and freeing ourselves for other things?

2. A.J. Jacobs wrote about an experiment in personal outsourcing (with more detail in his book The Guinea Pig Diaries: My life as an Experiment).

The sociological origin of the term “McJob”

With McDonald’s hiring 62,000 employees on April 19, a journalist looks at the sociological origins of the term “McJobs“:

The term McJob first appeared in the summer of 1986, when George Washington University sociology professor Amitai Etzioni wrote a column for the Washington Post decrying the “highly routinized” jobs at fast-food restaurants and their effect on American teens.

“By nature, these jobs undermine school attendance and involvement, impart few skills that will be useful in later life, and simultaneously skew the values of teenagers -especially their ideas about the worth of a dollar,” Etzioni wrote.

He went on to criticize the culture and routine of working at McDonald’s and other fast-food companies, noting that the jobs do not provide opportunity for entrepreneurship like the traditional lemonade stand, or the lessons of self-organization, self-discipline and self-reliance like the traditional paper route.

“True, you still have to have the gumption to get yourself over to the hamburger stand, but once you don the prescribed uniform, your task is spelled out in minute detail,” he argued. “There is no room for initiative creativity or even elementary rearrangements. These are breeding grounds for robots working for yesterday’s assembly lines, not tomorrow’s high-tech posts.”

The article then goes on to describe how McDonald’s has tried to fit back against the term, including a 2007 from “the British arm of the company…to get the Oxford English Dictionary definition changed.”

On one hand, such jobs may not be great and this is what Etzioni was getting at: they generally are low-paying and in many places don’t pay enough to be considered a “living wage.” A work like Nickel and Dimed (a review of the theater version here) portrayed such employees as having difficult lifestyles and little hope for the future. More broadly, we could think of these jobs as emblematic of a larger process of McDonaldization, coined by sociologist George Ritzer, that describes the rationalization of the modern world.

On the other hand, we live in a country that really pays attention to job reports with less interest in what kinds of jobs were actually created. The April jobs figures showed good jobs growth but we could inquire about the quality of these jobs: are they well-paying, sustainable jobs that will pay American workers for decades to come? Or, were the majority of jobs middling to lower-skilled jobs that serve American consumers in the service industry?

In the end, we have a society that is quite dependent on such “McJobs.” The term is unlikely to go away though it clearly applies to a lot more corporations and areas than simply McDonald’s. Just as Walmart tends to get singled out as emblematic of big box stores and suburban sprawl because of its revenue (still at the top of the Fortune 500), McDonald’s size and influence draws attention (Super Size Me, anyone?). But as a society, we could have larger and ongoing discussions about what kind of jobs we wish to hold and to promote. In these discussions, we need corporations like McDonald’s, Walmart, Starbucks, Apple, and others involved to think about the American future.