Americans labor/work in order to…

One day past Labor Day, some quick thoughts on why Americans work so much:

-We have the idea that hard work is a primary reason that people get ahead.

-We work because we need money. Many (not all) make enough to subsist even as the median income has been stagnant in recent years and working multiple low-wage jobs is seen as a badge of courage. Then, the money can be used to consume or buy the things we need to have to be up-to-date people (these days, a smartphone, flat-screen television, Internet access, etc.) or to assert our social standing. Or, we may buy things just because we like having a lot of things and we enjoy shopping and acquiring. Plus, much of our economy depends on consumer spending so people without jobs and money leads to some big issues for many economic sectors.

-We work because some like their jobs and want to use their skills and use their time doing something important or productive.

-We work to have an identity. No work = not being productive or not contributing to society. Either work or parenting (with a tentative guess that the first is ascending and the second descending) is the primary task of the adult life.

-We work to bank vacation days that we don’t use to the full extent.

Granted, I was thinking of this after teaching an Introduction to Sociology class the basics of Karl Marx’s observations about society. I paraphrased this quote from The German Ideology (pg. 12-13):

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

If we weren’t in this particular social economic system, how might work be organized differently to take advantage of people’s interest in creativity and production? How much of work today is freeing and leads to improvement of communities and the self?

7 PM liked by many college students in 20 countries

A recent multinational study finds that 7 PM may just be the most agreeable part of the day:

At 7 p.m., around the world, we all feel more or less the same about what we’re doing. That’s the finding from a massive study team, with 33 worldwide collaborators, led by psychologist Esther Guillaume of the University of California at Riverside. Sampling more than 5,400 individuals from 20 countries, the researchers found that people across countries (and within the same) made highly similar assessments of life at 7 p.m…

Across all 20 countries, participants gave very consistent RSQ ratings to life at 7 p.m. In general, people found whatever they were doing at that time to be “simple and clear-cut,” “social,” and “potentially enjoyable”; they also felt they were free to speak and feel a range of emotions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the lowest-rated descriptions made reference to abuse, physical or emotional threats, loss of freedom, or deception…

Obviously a study this vast will carry some caveats. The most glaring are that despite the high sample size, most study participants were college students, with a median age of 22 years old. The RSQ itself was developed by U.S. researchers, rather than a global research consortium, and this was its maiden cross-cultural voyage. Neuroskeptic has a smart take on the study’s limitations:

Overall this is a fascinating study and a rich dataset. But while the sample was drawn from five continents, the participants were not selected at random: all of them were students or ‘members of college communities’. What’s more, all of the participating nations were politically stable and at least middle-income. Is life so generally happy in Iraq, South Sudan, or Haiti?

It sounds like the study suffers from an sampling issue that many psychology face: they have WEIRD participants. That acronym stands for participants from “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.” Even if this finding may not be applicable worldwide, it is still interesting within this set of countries. What happens at this time of day?

1. It is around the end of the work day. Many of these societies separate home and work life so people are returning home and looking to relax after a full work day.

2. It is around dinner time (in some places more than others).

3. Depending on the time of year, it is not too long after getting dark or there is still some time for sunlight. Regardless, night is coming and this can be associated with entertainment or relaxation or sleep.

4. Television schedules and evening events start around this time.

In other words, people in these countries generally have more free time and can make choices for this themselves at this time of day.

Average full-time work week is 47 hours; median is around 40 hours

A number of headlines have screamed about a recent Gallup finding that the average American full-time worker works 47 hours a week. Yet, the median appears to conform to the typical 40-hour work week:

Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails. In fact, half of all full-time workers indicate they typically work more than 40 hours, and nearly four in 10 say they work at least 50 hours.

Average Hours Worked by Full-Time U.S. Workers, Aged 18+










The 40-hour workweek is widely regarded as the standard for full-time employment, and many federal employment laws — including the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” — use this threshold to define what a full-time employee is. However, barely four in 10 full-time workers in the U.S. indicate they work precisely this much. The hefty proportion who tell Gallup they typically log more than 40 hours each week push the average number of hours worked up to 47. Only 8% of full-time employees claim to work less than 40 hours.

These findings are based on data from Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey. The combined sample for 2013 and 2014 includes 1,271 adults, aged 18 and older, who are employed full time.

Is the average the best measure here? This is a classic case where the median and mean give you different conclusions. The median tells you that not much has changed from the standard: half of full-time workers work 40 hours or less. The average, on the other hand, is pulled up by those people working 50+ hours. As the Gallup analysis goes on, it notes that there is a difference between salaried and hourly employees with salaried workers working more of those 40+ hour weeks. These salaried workers are likely white-collar and professional workers, people who may be working more but likely have more credentials, are getting paid more, and have higher-status jobs.

So, perhaps the headlines might be more accurate by saying “Salaried full-time workers have higher [47? 50?] hour work week.”

“The ideal commute is not actually no commute” relies on the separation of home and work

Eric Jaffe looks at some evidence that suggests Americans want a bit of a commute to detox from work:

To want a longer trip to or from work may seem strange, if not pathologically self-loathing, when considering all that’s known about the stresses and health hazards of commuting. Still, I’m not entirely alone here. You might think the ideal commute is no commute, but when you actually ask commuters, that isn’t always what they say. In a memorable Washington Post piece from years back, tracking the affection some commuters have for their home-to-office-and-back trip, one man “cursed with a three-minute drive to his job” wished he had some “time to detox”…

A classic study from 2001, conducted by Lothlorien Redmond and Patricia Mokhtarian, asked roughly 1,300 workers in the San Francisco area to report both their “actual” and their “ideal” commute times. The researchers found that the average one-way ideal was actually 16 minutes. Nearly a third of the respondents reported an ideal one-way time of 20 minutes or more. Less than 2 percent reported an ideal under 4 minutes, and only 1.2 percent reported an ideal commute of zero commute...

Now, that’s the exception, not the rule. Redmond and Mokhtarian did find that most respondents, nearly 52 percent, preferred a commute at least 5 minutes shorter than their actual one (which, on average for these folks, was 40 minutes). But 87 people in the sample, or nearly 7 percent, had an ideal commute that was at least 5 minutes longer than their actual commute (which, in this case, was 10 minutes, on average). For the 42 percent of participants whose actual and ideal trips were more or less the same, the average commute was 15 minutes, one way. It seems a quarter hour is something like a preferred commuter constant…

More recent attempts to understand commuter desires have uncovered plenty of nuance. Mode obviously matters. Some work suggests that drivers find their commute more stressful than others, on account of traffic, unexpected delays, and the existence of other drivers. Transit riders can feel some stress, too, especially when the train or bus is delayed, and they also have to worry more about boredom (though that’s quickly becoming obsolete). Walkers and cyclists report the most relaxing and exciting trips.

The type of day you’ve had matters, too. One study, published late last year, recorded trip diaries of 76 commuters over a five-day period. When the demands of the work day were low, the detachment commuters felt during the trip home didn’t influence their anxiety levels once they got there (accounting for travel time). But on days with lots of stress at work, the opposite was true: more detachment on the commute meant less anxiety—and more serenity—upon getting home.

All of this makes some sense within the current system where many people work in a more corporate setting (don’t underestimate the connections between large social changes and the rise of the modern white-collar office) and live within more sprawling metropolitan regions.

Yet, this is based on a social system where work and home are typically separated. This hasn’t always been the case throughout human history. Centuries ago, many people lived and worked within the same building or property. In other words, this idea that you go somewhere to work didn’t really exist. In Crabgrass Frontier, historian Kenneth Jackson describes how even as late as 1815 49 out of 50 workers lived within a one mile walk of their place of employment. Home and work continued to get pulled apart during the Industrial Revolution as well as the urbanization that affected developing countries.

Talk of having no commute for most workers has existed for several decades due to the possibilities for telecommuting. (Granted, this option is more restricted for certain kinds of jobs, particularly in service and manual labor sectors.) Still, many businesses and workers continue to want to go to an office and so we’ll continue to participate in and analyze commutes.

Argument: The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’

Two professors argue being good at math is about hard work, not about genetics:

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability…

Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interesting argument: if you believe you can’t do well at a subject, you probably won’t. The authors then go on to hint at broader social beliefs: Americans tend to believe in talent, other countries tend to emphasize the value of hard work.

This lines up with what I was recently reading about athletes in The Sports Gene. The author reviews a lot of research that suggests training and genetics both matter. But, genetics may not matter in the way people typically think they do – more often, it matters less that people are “naturally gifted” and more that some learn quick than others. So, the 10,000 hours to become an expert, an idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is the average time it takes one to become an expert. However, some people can do it much more quickly, some much more slowly due to their different rates of learning.

Census: 600,000 megacommuters in the US

New data from the Census shows there are around 600,000 megacommuters in the United States:

About 600,000 Americans are megacommuters who work at least 50 miles from home and take at least 90 minutes to get there, with the biggest concentration in California, the U.S. Census Bureau said on Tuesday.

The agency said the percentage of Americans who traveled at least 90 minutes to work daily has inched higher in the last two decades even as the number of people who work from home has soared by 45 percent.

The average one-way daily U.S. commute is 25.5 minutes, and one in four commuters leave their home counties for work, the Census Bureau said, based on its annual American Community Survey…

Three-quarters of megacommuters are male, and they are more likely to be married, older, make a higher salary and have a spouse who does not work. They also are likely to leave for work before 6 a.m., according to the study.

This is still a very small segment of the workforce, less than 1 percent according to the article, but still quite interesting. My first thought at seeing the megacommuter figures is that many of these workers live on the metropolitan fringe or in exurbs. This could be because they need to find a cheaper house (especially if they have a spouse who does not work?) or because they value a little more space.

The first laptop met with distaste because it was associated with the gendered job of secretary

The “first recognizable laptop” created in 1982 ran into some problems such as its hefty price tag and its association with typing and who did the typing in many offices:

But Jeff Hawkins, founder of Palm and Handspring (makers of the Treo), was there in 1982 and he told a different story at the Computer History Museum a few years ago during a panel on the laptop. For him, the problems were not exclusively in the harder domains of currency and form factor. No, sociological and psychological reasons made the GRiD Compass hard to sell to businessmen…

This is an amazing fact. We had this product. It was designed for business executives. And the biggest obstacle, one of the biggest obstacles, we had for selling the product was the fact — believe it or not — that it had a keyboard. I was in sales and marketing. I saw this first-hand. At that time, 1982, business people, who were in their 40s and 50s, did not have any computer or keyboard in their offices. And it was associated with being part of the secretarial pool or the word processing (remember that industry?) department. And so you’d put this thing in their office and they’d say, “Get that out of here.” It was like getting a demotion. They really were uncomfortable with it…

The second reason they were uncomfortable with it is that none of them knew how to type. And it wasn’t like they said, “Oh, I’ll have to learn how to type.” They were very afraid — I saw this first-hand — they were very afraid of appearing inept. Like, “You give me this thing, and I’m gonna push the wrong keys. I’m gonna fail.”

In Hawkins telling at least, there was no way around these obstacles. “We couldn’t solve this problem. It took a generational change, for the next younger group who had been exposed to terminals and computers to grow up,” he continued. “That was an amazing technology adoption problem you would have never thought about.”

This is a great example of underlying sociological issues that might not be considered fully when making and marketing a new product. On one hand, this was an exciting new technology but on the other hand, existing social factors made it difficult for businessmen to grab the opportunity this technology represented. Ideas about gender and who was supposed to be a typist, viewed as a lower status position, influenced technology adaptation.

Also, this story could lead into the history of secretaries and typists. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the field of secretaries started turning away from men to women. Like other gendered occupations with a majority of women, secretary became a lower status position with relatively lower pay.