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.

College president teaches “sociology of work” course

The president of University of Virginia is a sociologist who this semester is teaching a course titled “sociology of work”:

The syllabus calls the University of Virginia class the “Sociology of Work,” but it might as well have been called “Everything You Need to Know About the Real World That’s Not Usually Taught in College.”…

Many of them signed up for the class not knowing what to expect, and some admit that they were just looking to fulfill a class requirement before graduation. But they were all intrigued by the professor listed for the course: U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan…

Although the demands of leading a university continue to grow, several presidents in the region still carve out time to teach. It seems almost gimmicky: The university’s top executive standing before a class of students, leading by example and learning from doing. Sullivan’s syllabus says the course “reflects my conviction that teaching and research are closely related.” But it’s also an opportunity to indulge in what got school officials into higher education in the first place…

One morning last week, the class discussed juggling work and family. Sullivan, who has a PhD in sociology, told them that when she was pregnant with her first child, she took her department chair out for lunch: “I said, ‘Bill, I’m pregnant.’ And he choked on his hamburger. I thought we would have to do the Heimlich,” Sullivan said, with a laugh. At the time, she was one of two women in her department, and no one was sure how to handle maternity leave.

I wonder if students automatically give better course evaluations to a college president. It would be interesting to know how well college presidents can teach though I assume former academics might be just fine.

Additionally, the opening line of this article is interesting as it implies college doesn’t teach anything about the real world. This is a growing refrain and yet should college classes only be about how to navigate workplace situations as this article suggests?

Does anyone have a list of all the college presidents who are/were sociologists? I would think sociologists would be well-suited for dealing with all of the different aspects of the college…though studying society doesn’t necessarily mean one is well-suited for dealing with people.

Breaking the social norm of the 40 hour work week

The New Economics Foundation suggests we work 40 hour weeks because that is the prevailing social norm, not because it is necessary:

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says there is nothing natural or inevitable about what’s considered a “normal” 40-hour work week today. In its wake, many people are caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption. They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume things. Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies: so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and mostly just relative to those around us (who strive to consume still more, in a self-perpetuating spiral).

The NEF argues we need to achieve truly happy lives, we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial clock ticking in our heads. It sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons: it will redistribute paid work, offering the hope of a more equal society (right now too many are overworked, or underemployed). At the same time, it would give us all time for the things we value but rarely have time to do well such as care for our family, travel, read or continue learning (as opposed to feeding consumerism).

This reminds me of past visions where modern conveniences, like new appliances or flying cars or a a perpetually robust economy, would reduce the number of hours people would have to spend on “menial” tasks like housework and working. Alas, many of these things have not happened.

This group does raise an interesting issue: there are ideological reasons for sticking to 40 hours. This foundation suggests that working less would lead to more fulfilling lives full of relationships and time to pursue our true interests. I wonder how many Americans would really be willing to work less in exchange for less money or discretionary income.

I wonder if a movement toward this direction would require a respected company to make this change.

Still on the road after all these years

In light of the recent heat wave, Derek Thompson over at The Atlantic asks why more people don’t telecommute:

The answer might have more to do with psychology than economics. Even if we’re technically more productive at home, we feel more conspicuously productive at work. You might think a recession would lead to more telecommuting since it reduces overhead and increases work hours. Instead, telework among the formally employed has slowed in the last three years.

Thinking back through my personal experience, this strikes me as correct. In the past, I’ve held several jobs that I could telecommute into, but I always felt like my time was suspect since it couldn’t be obviously verified by showing up to the office. For all of the inconveniences of commuting, at least I clearly received “credit” for my office appearances.

A life of leisure in the suburbs

In addition to noting how suburbs began because of religious intentions to pull women out of dirty and immoral cities, this essay looks at how the suburbs were seen as a place for leisure, ultimately exacerbating the divide between work and leisure:

The idea of the bungalow and its compound, the suburb, caught like wildfire, largely because its hidden message was one of leisure, universal and perpetual. The bungalow exists in dozens of different cultures with almost as many definitions – from seaside shack (Britain) to hotel-side pavilion (Germany) to house fit for Europeans (Africa, Mexico and the Caribbean).

The common theme, apart from the sense of a stand-alone single-family dwelling, is the theme of manifest leisure, obvious waste or, in Thorstein Veblen’s term, conspicuous consumption. ”People will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life,” Veblen wrote in his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class, ”in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption”.

The idea that this waste-time, or leisure, might be available to everyone quickly made it despised by the upper classes but beloved by the rest. It was as if, in buying a bungalow, you were buying the promise, or at least the possibility, of perpetual vacation.

But there’s an irony here which, like so much of Western modernism, looks set to rebound on us. For excess leisure doesn’t make us healthy or happy. We’re just not that kind of primate.

I wonder how this has changed today for generations that were raised in the suburbs. The contrast between the life of leisure in the city versus the suburbs was probably quite clear for those who lived in the city, particularly industrializing cities in the 1800s and early 1900s, but for those that have only known the suburbs, do the suburbs still operate as a haven for leisure? Is the key to suburban leisure the actual relaxing nature of it or its contrast to alternatives that are perceived as being even worse?

This essay also hints at how the work-leisure divide can be bridged. One option presented is to construct more mixed-use developments where workers and residents could interact more. But another option would be to construct or rebuild “third places” where people could find a middle ground between home/family and work. Such institutions (commericial or not) could mediate these two realms. Third, I wonder if this problem might dissipate as younger adults may be more willing to mix these two categories as work becomes less of an income-earning activity and more of a passion, vocation, or calling.