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.

Driverless cars will lead to increased worker productivity

Dan Neil writes about the inevitability of driverless cars and brings up an interesting benefit: Americans will suddenly have more time on their hands.

The one brilliant part of the U.S. economic profile is productivity. It turns out, Americans are a little nutty when it comes to work.

If autonomy were fully implemented today, there would be roughly 100 million Americans sitting in their cars and trucks tomorrow, by themselves, with time on their hands. It would be, from an economist’s point of view, the Pennsylvania oil fields of man-hours, a beautiful gusher, a bonanza of reverie washing upon our shores.

In the history of human civilization, has there ever been a society to offer so much uninterrupted head space to so many? Europe’s medieval monastic tradition created scholars, true, but only a relative handful…

It’s possible that all these suddenly idle driver/passengers will waste their gift, texting, watching TV or worse. But many of them, like me, would beaver into work, happy to get a jump on the day.

And here’s the best part. I always get my best ideas in the car—in solitude, watching the unwinding of the road, hearing the thrum of the tires. You know that space, right?

Hurray – more time to work! Neil might be excited about this but I first think of all the opportunities for mixing the boundaries of home and work even further. Thinking more broadly, is productivity something we want to continue to chase as a society? Do Americans really need to be working more?

On the other hand, this could be a big boon for several sectors. Think about media companies: Americans would then have on average something like 40-60 minutes more per day to consume television shows, websites, podcasts, music, etc. Or perhaps it could give rise to all sorts of services and car add-ons; I’m thinking of the Honda Odyssey commercials from a while back showing moms going to the minivan to relax and get a facial.

 

Sociological concepts that help explain why some companies are telling employees to avoid work email at home

Some companies are telling their employees to not check their work email at home:

In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.

For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say…

“There is no question e-mail is an important tool, but it’s just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance,” said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.

Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

Three sociological ideas shed some light on this:

1. This increased level of stress might be due to the mixing of the front-stage and back-stage performances of employees. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about these two settings, the first where we play a role, in this case as employee, and this requires emotional and physical energy. In the latter setting, we can let down our guard. Checking work email at home means this back-stage setting is interrupted.

2. This reminds me of the work by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng on the symbolic boundaries between home and work. We place home and work in certain mental categories and so crossing these boundaries can create some difficulties. Sociologist Ray Oldenberg suggested another way around these two symbolic boundaries: we need “third places” like coffee shops and pubs where workers can relax and interact with other citizens in settings distinct from work and home.

3. A few centuries ago, more average citizens may have mixed home and work as people worked in their homes or very near by. It wasn’t until the industrial era that more employees had to travel further to their workplaces, creating a larger physical difference between home and work that also translated into more symbolic difference. Perhaps this story about email is a reminder that at this point in history we are swinging back to mixing  home and work because of technology that transcends physical boundaries.

When looking at the minimum wage, should we consider whether a poorly paying job is better than no job?

I ran into an argument about whether the minimum wage should be raised in the United States and it got me thinking about the reasons behind the argument for raising it. To start, here is some of the debate:

One of the harshest realities of America’s slow economic recovery — and there are many — is the fact in spite of modest job growth, pay for workers is falling. Year over year, average inflation adjusted wages have dropped by 0.6 percent for all private sector employees. They’re down a full 1 percent for non-supervisors — your retail salespeople, your shop floor factory workers, your cashiers. In other words, even as the overall employment picture has improved in fits and starts, the working poor are getting poorer.

Some believe this is a sign of the recovery’s weakness, and today the National Employment Law Project used it as a rallying point to call for a higher minimum wage. According to their analysis, which is current through the beginning of 2011, while the bulk of job losses during the recession affected medium wage earners, such as paralegals and nurses, most of the hiring post-recession has been for low-paid service work. Middle class jobs, they argue, have been replaced with poverty wage jobs…

But here’s the alarming part. All of this might simply mean that the same forces that caused wages to stagnate before the recession will make them stagnate after the recession. It’s just another sign that income inequality is here to stay, unless something radical changes that will give working class families a larger slice of the pie. Will raising the minimum wage do that? It might help on the margins, certainly for the 3.8 million workers who earn it.  (I’m not one of those who believes that a higher minimum wage actually kills jobs. This great, short Slate piece from 2004 explains why.) But the vast majority of American workers won’t see much benefit from it. Rather, fixing the wage problem means we need to think about the fundamental problems skewing income growth towards the top, from spiraling CEO pay to an inadequate education system.

Falling wages are taking us back to where we were before the recession. For many workers, that’s not a good place. And there aren’t any easy ways out of it.

Of course, arguments for raising the minimum wage often focus on the idea that it is not enough money to live on. Hence, calls for a living wage that is more closely tied to a more steady standard of living.

But I wonder if there isn’t a bigger issue at work here: the idea that low-paying jobs may not be worth having. In other words, people might be better off without a minimum wage job. The low-paying job may be helpful in securing a new job (you don’t want an unemployment gap in your resume) or moving up but too many of these low-paying jobs pay so little that employees may not be able to do the things they need to do to move up (move to a new area where jobs are more plentiful, own a reliable car to expand job prospects, enroll in classes, etc.). Additionally, a number of these jobs don’t really offer chances for advancement; if they do, it is limited to a small group of workers. So these workers can get trapped in a cycle of low-paying positions that meet some basic needs to survive but never provide the hope to do something better. This is reflected in books like Nickel and Dimed: it is hard enough to do the daily grind, let alone find some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a better-paying job.

In this sense, making a small adjustment to the minimum wage wouldn’t seem to do much. It might offer a little more money but this is likely eroded quickly by inflation (past and future). What we then need is more jobs that provide a higher standard of living and give more employees the opportunity to move on and up to something better.

(I realize there is a lot more going on here. But I wanted to get at the idea that simply having a job isn’t a guarantee of having the chance to reach the American Dream. Being willing to work doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good outcome. This also reminds me of Katherine Newman’s book No Shame In My Game about the working poor who want to work but can’t access the jobs that would lead to success.)

“The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented”

A sociologist suggests mothering is done very differently in America:

“American parenting is child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, financially expensive and is expected to be done by mothers alone. And it is impossible to do alone,” said Sharon Hays, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented. We expect selfless devotion to what we interpret as the child’s needs, wants and interests at every moment of the day. And with the vast majority of mothers working, that puts them in an impossible paradox.”

While the intensity is at its most acute in the middle and upper-middle class, she said, her studies have found that low-income parents feel the same parenting pressures, compounded by the guilt of having neither the resources nor the time to meet them.

The rest of the article talks about why this is: we have structured society in such a way so that the brunt of child care is borne by individuals, not society, and with our cultural gender norms, women are left with much of the burden.