Photo via Joe Loong via Flickr.
Photo via Joe Loong via Flickr.

In a recent excerpt from her book The Tumbleweed Society: Work and Caring in an Age of Insecurity featured in Salon, sociologist Allison Pugh discusses how the insecure economy has made employees feel wary of their employers but also like they must rush to their defense. Employees often bend over backward to identify with their bosses and meet their needs, but employers are much less likely to reciprocate. What do employers and employees owe each other?

The move away from the old social contract, in which employees traded loyalty and effort for job security, has resulted in real and perceived job insecurity among may adults for whom full-time work is a central piece of identity. Pugh says the result of the opposing trends of increased job insecurity and increased cultural importance of full-time employment is lots of anxiety for employees and a “one-way honor system.” Employees still feel obligated to uphold their end of the social contract by demonstrating loyalty and hard work, they don’t expect the same commitment from their employers. Even those with the lowest-skill and lowest-paying jobs empathize with the employers’ needs for good workers and expect little beyond dignity, respect, and a paycheck.

Part of the reason for the one-way honor system is the perception that intense work commitment is an integral part of being an honorable, moral person:

Survey researchers report, for example, that about the same percentage of women as men—70 percent of full-time working women (both white-collar and blue-collar workers)—say they would continue to work if they suddenly had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives, known as the “lottery question” (and used by researchers as a rough proxy for a work ethic). A strong work ethic was part of good character, part of being fully human, no matter your gender, people maintained.

In other words, it’s not the job itself that’s the source of dignity, it’s the work ethic. So as jobs get more precarious, many people work longer and harder instead of slacking off, partially because they fear those who don’t work hard enough or produce enough will be the first ones to lose those coveted jobs.

Katie Cannon, Flickr CC
Katie Cannon, Flickr CC

After months of abuse and harassment from users, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned from the website. Unfortunately, Pao’s experience is far from unique. Many female chief executives face character assassination based in large part on their gender; the anonymity of the Internet allows harassment to escalate as far as death threats. For many experts, Pao’s resignation is an example of the “glass cliff,” a point where women rise to higher positions only to be forced out through excessive personal attacks and abuse.

Sociologist Marianne Cooper of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research isn’t surprised by this gendered bias, telling The Guardian, “I haven’t seen this kind of reaction to egregious things male CEOs have done.”

As lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Cooper is familiar with the gendered biases of the workplace and the use of female leaders as scapegoats for larger company problems: “Oftentimes, the women who inherit the problems are put in precarious positions, and if they fail, they are blamed for it.”

Chicago's "Overpass Light Brigade." Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.
Chicago’s “Overpass Light Brigade.” Photo by Mikasi, Flickr CC.

San Francisco recently passed legislation which will eventually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour in incremental, planned hikes. On the heels of the “Fight for 15” movement, this seems like good news for those living on or near the minimum wage. As explained by an article on NBC online, with help from CUNY Graduate Center’s Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements, people may not start celebrating just yet.

Many people working on the minimum wage at the moment, for example, work multiple jobs. As Milkman states, “[I]f you’re working at the current minimum wage in a lot of places, you’re still in poverty, especially if you’re supporting other people.” When the wage is going to be increased in gradual increments, those gradual changes may not make much of a dent in what it takes to support oneself or dependents, especially in areas experiencing gentrification. Consequentially, as Milkman explains, this can create a “lot of discontent in a lot of the working population.”

Indeed, as basic struggles of living on the minimum wage continue after slight increases, there can be downsides as well. Businesses which rely on a greater proportion of minimum-wage workers can be more likely to operate in low-income areas, such as fast-food restaurants. Therefore, if businesses raise prices to handle paying a higher wage, the minimum-wage-hike could be hurting the people it was meant to help. At the moment, San Francisco is leading the way on raising the minimum wage, but don’t wager that the discussions are over just yet.

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr Creative Commons.
Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr Creative Commons.

In years following the 2008 recession, many Americans are still scrambling to find enough work hours to make ends meet. One emerging trend is “clopening,” when an employee works the closing shift, then opens the same business a few hours later. Piled on top of commuting, trying to get some sleep, and attending to family duties, the few remaining precious hours between shifts are overbooked. That can have negative consequences on health. Sociologist Gerhard Bosch tells the New York Times about the European Union’s required 11-hour rest period between shifts: ““If a retail shop closes at midnight, the night-shift employees are not allowed to start before 11 o’clock the next morning.”

Even though some unions in the United States have negotiated similar required “between shifts” time, there is not yet a national labor law. However, several states have taken steps toward Right to Work laws some hope will alleviate the long, inconsistent hours many employees face.

Some business owners claim that some employees prefer “clopening” to working 9 to 5, pointing, for example, to students with busy daytime class schedules. However, one student worker told the Times that working on the clopening schedule meant quitting his pursuit of a master’s degree—he’d lost focus and developed chronic exhaustion.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.