Subsidizing the Suburban Commute

Looks like a long walk. Photo by Krystian Olzszanski Flickr CC.
Looks like a long walk. Photo by Krystian Olzszanski Flickr CC.

Those who have fallen on hard times or don’t have many resources can turn to public programs for essentials like food and housing assistance, but what about transportation? As people living in poverty are forced to the suburbs by rising costs and gentrification, they are now further away from the places and services they need to reach, like work and clinics. Enter Alexandra Murphy, a University of Michigan sociologist recently quoted in the Pacific Standard: “Transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service… even though it’s widely acknowledged that transportation creates opportunity and hardship.”

King’s County in Seattle is offering a new subsidized bus program that is garnering national attention. As described in the Pacific Standard, “[the program] will now allow low-income residents to ride buses, trains, and ferries for $1.50, when standard fares can be more than $3.” Programs like this, however, come with liability risks. What happens if a government-subsidized vehicle gets into an accident? The stickiness of these situations can be a deterrent for those hoping to start public transportation programs; as Murphy explains, “it’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into.” With time, it is hoped that King’s County may offer a way forward for other communities facing a mismatch between where the housing is plentiful and where the jobs are on offer.

Working for the Long Weekend

The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.
The Preiser Project, Flickr CC.

Who doesn’t love a four (or five!) day weekend? An extra day or two away from the desk means more time for leisure activities and to disengage from work. But Scott Schieman, sociology professor at University of Toronto, warns that consistently short work weeks may not help work-life balance in the long run. In an interview on CBC’s Daybreak South, Schieman said,

I think what we have to really look at are the nature or the demands of the job—and how those demands can either be compressed in particular time periods, or whether they actually need to be spread out, and that’s when you get to some of the cons.

When the same amount of work needs to be done in three days instead of five, it means longer hours. It’s like cramming for a college exam, when it’s physically tiring and harder to process information. Even if three days of intense work seems like a good trade for four days at home, it’s still unlikely that “days off” mean not working, Schieman points out: “What if there’s a deadline, what if there’s an ongoing project? Can you really break from that fully?” Additionally, people with families may find the long hours associated with shorter work weeks incompatible with obligations like carpool, and non-stop work is unlikely to happen in a house with a demanding toddler. Savoring the occasional holiday might provide a better balance, aligning with kids’ school days and taken-for-granted “business hours,” while adding in a “bonus” day of leisure intermittently.

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.
Photo by J.L. McVay via Flickr.

During election season, we are treated to story after story about how candidates have made themselves out of nothing. Wisconsin Governer Scott Walker, locked in a tight reelection battle with Mary Burke, his Democratic opponent, has made a career of turning talk about his lack of a college degree into a story about upward mobility rather than academic insufficiency. Much of Joe Biden’s appeal as both a Senator and a Vice President comes from his salt of the earth appeal as the son of father who faced financial ruin, lived with his grandparents, and, through hard work and dedication, made something of his life. Candidates on both sides of the aisle tap into the discourse of upward mobility to demonstrate that they understand the struggles of the people they hope will elect them.

When candidates talk about how they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps on the campaign trail, they’re doing more than lauding their own humble pasts to gain voters’ trust. They’re also tapping into a social narrative that’s been used throughout American history to determine what counts as economic success and who it’s available to. At the same time as it aligns candidates with desired swaths of the electorate, especially middle-class whites who turn out in numbers, it also implies a subtle distance between candidates and social problems. All of us can do this, if only we try hard enough, goes the implied reasoning, and if you can’t do it, that’s on you. Who can’t do it? As usual in American society, that would be the out-groups: non-whites, immigrants, LGBT people, and the disabled. Advocates of the bootstraps school of social mobility like to counter this critique by linking economic success to cultural values. They point out that immigrant Jews have largely succeeded economically, while African Americans still struggle, and attribute this to a set of American cultural values that Jews share, but blacks don’t.

In an excellent longform Slate article on this topic, John Swansburg cites sociologist Stephen Steinberg’s 1981 book The Ethnic Myth, a critique of what Steinberg calls the “Horatio Alger Theory of Ethnic Success,” or the belief that all social outgroups start with the same set of disadvantages. Most early 20th century Jewish immigrants, Steinberg argues, came from urbanized, industrial European cities, where they gathered “years of industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy.” Most American blacks, on the other hand, learned farming and field work—skills that benefited them little as they moved to the industrial North after Reconstruction.

When Scott Walker, Joe Biden, or any other candidate for office talks about his or her humble past, he or she is making a subtle implication that the problems of disadvantaged groups in America are  mostly cultural, rather than economic or structural. I know how to work hard and I know you do too, so elect me and I’ll make sure that our kind of work is rewarded. And those others, whose work is never rewarded? Well, they’re just not working hard enough.

For more on how candidates construct narratives to court voters, read (or listen to!) Jeffrey Alexander’s “Heroes, Presidents, and Politics,” now in podcast form.

Reproducing Reality in Fantasy-Land: Online Gaming and Offline Behaviors

Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.
Photo by Eduardo Hulshof, Flickr CC.

Ubisoft has been trying to find out what makes its gamers tick. Nick Yee, a researcher fronting the company’s internal “Daedalus Project,” now has a new book, The Proteus Paradox, bringing together some of the major findings from the years of interviewing and observing gamers. Perhaps most interesting, as Bryan Alexander points out in Reason, is that, no matter how otherworldly the games might be, players tend to import their offline behavior and attitudes.

For instance, Yee explains in a chapter called “The Labor of Fun,” many gamers come to see gaming as a second job, demanding hours of boring drudgery contributing to fleeting achievements. Some even exploit other gamers to do the “grinding” work of leveling-up and repay it with racism toward those willing to do the work.

Gender figures interestingly, too:

Proteus outlines how male players denigrate, harass, and drive off female players. But Yee offers two twists to this sadly familiar story. First, women report wanting to play for the same reasons men do—achievement, social interaction, and immersion—going against essentialist expectations of gender behavior difference. And second, MMOs [massively multiplayer online games] offer a pedagogical benefit of sorts to male gamers who play under female avatars.

Males do this switching with some frequency… mostly to enjoy the eye candy of an attractive female avatar displayed in a game’s third-person perspective. That gaze is then reversed, as it were, as other players ogle the same avatar from their avatar’s perspectives. It’s a surprising opportunity to experience the kinds of sexual harassment that real-world women know to well.

Love, death, and helping others all come into play. “For all the criticisms that can be made of gamers’ behavior,” Alexander writes after reading Yee’s book, “these worlds are not bleak places entirely devoid of pleasure and fellow-feeling.” Between levels, it seems, some Putnam, Goffman, and Addams have snuck into the online realm.

For more in the Reason series on gaming, click here. For more on race in gaming, check out “The Whiteness of Warcraft,” here on TSP.

Not Your Typical June Cleaver

Image made available by James Vaughan via Flickr Creative Commons
Image made available by James Vaughan via Flickr Creative Commons

“Stay-at-home mother” evokes black and white images of well-coiffed women in starched aprons. Rather than a vestige of a bygone era, stay-at-home moms are on the rise, according to the findings of a new Pew Research study. In 2012, 29% of women with children under the age of 18 stayed home, a number that has been on the rise since 1999 and is 3% higher than in 2008.

However, while more women are staying home with their children, the face of the stay-at-home mom has changed dramatically since the 1950s “Leave It to Beaver” days. Stay-at-home moms today are less educated and more likely to live in poverty than working moms. Younger mothers and immigrant mothers also make up a good portion of stay-at-home moms.

The story of why mothers are staying home is more complex than you may imagine and has more to do with the poor labor market, the exorbitant price of child care, and the contemporary structure of work. In a recent interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Barbara Risman, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spoke about how this report has been picked up by the mainstream media:

What’s surprising to me is the headlines and how it’s portrayed in the news. Although the numbers are going up, when you look at what mothers say, 6% of the mothers in this study say they are home because they can’t find a job. When you take those 6% of mothers out, the results are rather flat. Part of the real story here then is that it’s hard to find a job that allows you to work and covers your child care, particularly if you have less education and your earning potential isn’t very high.

These days stay-at-home moms, who are more likely to be less educated, are not be able to make enough money for working to even be worthwhile. Many times, their pay wouldn’t actually cover the cost of child care. Beyond these important financial considerations, lower wage shift work makes it extremely difficult to coordinate child care in the midst of work schedules that change on a weekly basis.

For highly-educated, formerly-professional stay-at-home moms, it’s not that they’re “opting out” from the labor force, but they’re being pushed out by the “all-or-nothing” structure of professional jobs with 24/7 demands for worker availability. The nature of these jobs makes it very hard to be both a worker and a parent.

Picture 2

 

 

Redesigning Work to Find Balance

Photo by @Saigon via flickr.com
Photo by @Saigon via flickr.com

In the age-old struggle to “have it all,” many of us try to squeeze extra hours out of each day in order to accommodate all of our work and family responsibilities. In the past this discussion has revolved around female workers, those who juggle full-time work, parental duties, and the domestic chores of the “second shift.” However, as the nature of work changes – becoming more precarious at the same time more demanding – this struggle for work-life balance extends to workers of all genders, ages, and social classes.

In a recent Huffington Post blog, sociologists Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen discuss this very challenge, asserting,

The root problem, of course, isn’t that employees have family or personal commitments. The root problem is the rigid conventions of work that assume work must occur at certain times and places and that mistakenly gauge productivity by the number of hours spent at work.

Kelly and Moen research flexible working policies that can dramatically shift the very nature of work in order for this balance to be more attainable. They have found that the most effective flexible policies are those that are available to all workers, rather than perhaps mothers or specific individuals and that are collectively implemented with both employees and managers sharing control.

To move beyond decades of discussing work-life balance to meaningful change, employers need to shift from one-off accommodations. It’s time to make working efficiently, creatively, sustainably and flexibly the new norm.

These policies, such as remote work and varied hours, benefit organizations as well as employees. With these flexible policies, employees are not only more healthy and less stressed but also are more likely to work hard to keep their jobs.

Workplace Inflexibility

Working from home photo by Victor1558 via flickr.com.
Working from home photo by Victor1558 via flickr.com.

Best Buy has ended its Result Only Work Environment (ROWE) program, which famously allowed employees to telecommute, working in the office on a set schedule, or have the flexibility to do both. Evaluations were based solely on job performance, with no consideration of attendance. Best Buy’s policy change follows a similar change at Yahoo, where CEO Marissa Meyer no longer allows staff to work from home.

Executives at both companies cite a need to improve competitiveness, and they argue that requiring employees to come to the office will enhance collaboration and innovation. Erin Kelly, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, is skeptical. She argues that ROWE is not to blame for the companies’ struggles:

“I’m concerned that these flexibility initiatives and telework initiatives are getting blamed for what may be other problems those organizations are facing in the broader market,” Kelly told the Star Tribune.

Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas, similarly disputes research claims that required attendance improves innovation among employees.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Glass writes:

[M]uch of this “research” simply shows that workers who collaborate with others in loose networks generate better ideas. It doesn’t suggest that the best way to create new products and services is by isolating your employees in the silo of a single location.

Best Buy and Yahoo are calling for all hands on deck, but do all hands need to be on deck at the same time?

Slow Down to Pick Up the Pace

Photo by Adam Lynch via flickr.com
Photo by Adam Lynch via flickr.com

It seems like there’s never enough time: today’s workplaces demand efficiency and getting more done in less time. Workers cut down on breaks, vacation, and precious sleep. Luckily, Tony Schwartz brings good news in his op-ed for the New York Times:

A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.

In a country where “more than 50 percent [of workers] assume they’ll work during their vacations,” “an average of 9.2 vacation days [go] unused,” and “sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity,” these midday renewals offer much needed relief. Schwartz cites study after study showing everything from a full night’s sleep improving basketball performance to naps improving memory test results and alertness and reaction time among air traffic controllers. Another study found:

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes.

Next time you find yourself joking about needing a nap, pull up that carpet square, kindergarten style. Those kids know what they’re up to.

(Not) The End of Men

Photo by JETfri via Flickr.com

In an op-ed published in the New York Times a few weeks ago, Sociologist Stephanie Coontz argues that claims about the end of men greatly exaggerate the change in the distribution of power that has taken place over the last half century.

Fifty years ago, every male American was entitled to what the sociologist R. W. Connell called a “patriarchal dividend” — a lifelong affirmative-action program for men.  The size of that dividend varied according to race and class, but all men could count on women’s being excluded from the most desirable jobs and promotions in their line of work, so the average male high school graduate earned more than the average female college graduate working the same hours. At home, the patriarchal dividend gave husbands the right to decide where the family would live and to make unilateral financial decisions. Male privilege even trumped female consent to sex, so marital rape was not a crime.

Yes, things have changed.  For example, women’s real wages have been rising for decades, while the real wages of men have fallen.  Yet, this hardly makes women the “richer sex.”   Women started from a much lower base.  Furthermore, “….the median wages of female managers are just 73 percent of what male managers earn. And although women have significantly increased their representation among high earners in America over the past half-century, only 4 percent of the C.E.O.’s in Fortune’s top 1,000 companies are female.”

The ‘70s and ‘80s saw a reduction in job segregation by gender, especially in middle-class occupations.  But, as sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman explain, this reduction in segregation slowed during the subsequent decades.  And, some fields even became more segregated.  In 1980, 64% of social workers were women; today, the figure has risen to 81%.

Further, many who note the rise of women often cite that, today, women earn almost 60% of all college degrees.  Yet, women are still concentrated in traditionally female areas of study.

According to the N.Y.U. sociologist Paula England, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, most women, despite earning higher grades, seem to be educating themselves for occupations that systematically pay less.  Even women’s greater educational achievement stems partly from continuing gender inequities. Women get a smaller payoff than men for earning a high school degree, but a bigger payoff for completing college. This is not because of their higher grade point averages, the economist Christopher Dougherty concludes, but because women seem to need more education simply to counteract the impact of traditional job discrimination and traditional female career choices.

The decline of men has also been exaggerated.  As Coontz notes, rates of domestic violence have halved since 1993, and rapes and sexual assaults against women have fallen by 70%.  Husbands have also doubled their share of housework.

Yet, just like women, men also face an obstacle: over-investment in their gender identity.

Just as the feminine mystique discouraged women in the 1950s and 1960s from improving their education or job prospects, on the assumption that a man would always provide for them, the masculine mystique encourages men to neglect their own self-improvement on the assumption that sooner or later their ‘manliness’ will be rewarded.

Boys who engage in “girlie” activities are often bullied and ostracized, and men who take an active role in childcare and housework are more likely to be harassed at work.

Contrary to the fears of some pundits, the ascent of women does not portend the end of men. It offers a new beginning for both. But women’s progress by itself is not a panacea for America’s inequities. The closer we get to achieving equality of opportunity between the sexes, the more clearly we can see that the next major obstacle to improving the well-being of most men and women is the growing socioeconomic inequality within each sex.

 

 

Women’s Lifecourse and Health at ASA

Weddings
Photo by Dawn Derbyshire via flickr.com

At the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Denver, researchers presented their on-going research to colleagues in the field. This week, several news sources have covered sociologists’ findings about how events in the lifecourse (like getting married, divorced, or having kids) are related to health issues.

Medical News Today reports on a study by Adrianne Frech and Sarah Damaske, finding that moms who work full-time are healthier at age 40 than are other mothers. Particularly concerning is that the least healthy mothers at age 40 are those who are persistently unemployed or in and out of work, not by choice. Consistent work, these findings suggest, may be good for women’s health.

Co-author Adrianne Frech, Assistant Sociology Professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, told the press, work is good for both physical and mental health, for many reasons:

“It gives women a sense of purpose, self-efficacy, control and autonomy.”

“They have a place where they are an expert on something, and they’re paid a wage,” she added.

NBC News details research conducted by Michael McFarland, Mark Hayward, and Dustin Brown exploring how marriage is related to biological risk factors, such as high blood pressure. They found that women who were continuously married for longer periods of time had fewer cardiovascular risks, whereas women with experiences of divorce or widowhood had increased risk factors.

For women, the researchers found, the longer the marriage, the fewer cardiovascular risk factors. The effect was significant but modest, McFarland said, with every 10 years of continuous marriage associated with a 13 percent decrease in cardiovascular risk.

But when marriage is disrupted, it can be hard on the health. Women who were continuously married had a 40 percent lower count of metabolic risk factors than women who experienced two episodes or divorce or widowhood, the researchers found.

Finally, Deseret News picked up on research presented by Corinne Reczek, Tetyana Pudroyska, and Debra Umberson (also highlighted on Citings&Sightings). Their research found that being in a long-term marriage was associated with more alcohol consumption for women (compared to divorced or recently widowed women). In an interesting contrast, however, married men drink less than other men.

Our survey results show that continuously divorced and recently widowed women consume fewer drinks that continuously married women,” they wrote. “Our qualitative results suggest this occurs because men introduce and prompt women’s drinking and because divorced women lose the influence of men’s alcohol use” when the marriage fails.

As these studies indicate, it is essential to consider how social factors may be related to health outcomes, and sociologists are well positioned to contribute cutting-edge research on these issues.