Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Social Science Academia is rather Disengenuous...

Many new grad students when they first come to academia are starry-eyed and excited for the intellectual journey that is socialization into the academy. I, for one, definitely fell into that category. As I have progressed on this long and arduous journey, the ugly crevices  and backdoors of the academy have come into much clearer focus.

1) Graduate School is Socialization into the academy: It means that you must gain acceptance into this group by 'drinking the koolaid' or obeying group norms. Ironic, that social scientists rarely analyze the biases or norms that exist in their own 'little' society.

2) The Social Sciences try to look 'Smart': 'Physics envy' is the prevalent. Math, math, more math solves all social problems, even the one's that are blatantly obvious to everyone else. Grotesquely large words to explain simple, vague topics are thrown around like 'social capital'. Professor, professor what does that mean? 

3) Experience is not valued: Let me describe one of my conference experiences. It was a conference session on the effect of parental incarceration on adolescents. All the speakers as well as almost all participants were wealthy old white professors from elite universities. I could not help but wonder how the lack of personal experience on the topic biased their results. As all of us know, there are no right answers in the social sciences. Data analysis is an art, so is survey research and ethnographic work. Our biases seep in quickly and that was quite clear to me almost immediately. One professor discussed how 'surprisingly' incarnated parents 'really' do care about their children. It was condescending to say the least. Personal experience is invaluable to understanding the root causes of problems. Academia should value experience - there are some aspects of culture or experience that can never be taught. It is just as important to understanding 'why' x or y happens, as statistical models of incomplete data.

4) Social Science Fails to Address the Social Problems in it's own ranks:
  a) The Adjunct Crisis - some 70% of the professoriate is in low wage, non-permanent positions which lack health care with little hope of ever becoming a tenure track professor. Full professors rarely think about or discuss the adjunct crisis, nor are they straightforward about it with their students.
b) The lack of diversity - the lack of diversity in the social sciences is striking. There are so few minority professors at top schools, much lower than percentage in the population. As discussed before, this biases research both in the questions asked and their results. In addition the age structure is skewed up. Most professors were hired during the 1960s  and 1970s. They are out-of-touch with the world as it currently is and for the social sciences understanding current trends are important. Academia is often one of the last institutions to change.

Millenial Inequality

Millenials, are graduating and coming of age, during the most unequal time in US history in the past 100 years. Rich millennials are able to rely on parental support (see article) or utilize parental connections. They are able to take internships or pursue medical school. For the debt ridden underemployed majority, it's quite a bit more difficult. That's a bit dramatic, I know!  Not all of us are debt ridden or 'underemployed', but many of us have an employment 'situation'. You know what I mean such as having 'no job security', 'lack of health care', 'little job mobility' and other less than enviable employment woes.

Before, the Boomers chime in with of your generation is 'lazy, self-entitled' blah, blah, bah... Yes, some of us are probably all those things and most young people struggle through the transition of school to job which includes struggling financially for a while.

But the longer that I work and the further I am out from school, the more I feel like their is no clear path up. Wages are stagnating for everyone, except the very tippy top. It's not just me - the Boomers I work with are very disheartened by current economic situation. The relationship between employee and employer has grown exceedingly one-sided. It seems that every company is about it's bottom line. The human component of the current work environment has been all but squashed.

It makes me wonder what's there to come. What should I be looking forward to? Is there a way up for the vast majority of us - the masses that are destined not to excel beyond 'great'. What happens to us - the people that don't live for their job? We all want to enjoy the work we do, but not all of us can come to define our lives by it or be the 'best' at it.

Since wages are stagnating, the cost of starting your own company, writing a book, and pursing creative passions declines. However, the probability it will be successful also declines, since people have less money to spend and are rationing their money very carefully. Our generation might just have to be 'creative' because their are few other possibilities to have job security, wage growth and a chance at retirement exist.

As a kid, we all wanted to grow up and be 'middle class' maybe 'upper middle class', but as time passes being 'rich' seems far more desirable. For me that's enough to identify that something is horribly wrong.


Monday, February 3, 2014

The Death of the Suburbs and Rise of the Hipster Mom....

The common tropes of the soccer mom, cookie-cutter house and vast green manicured lawns of the Suburbs may well be gone in twenty years. The potential Death of the Suburbs has been followed by the Economist, New York Times and others. I will ague that it is likely that excitement and desire for Suburban living WILL DIE in most places.

With increasing income inequality, the desire is not to be middle class - living in a cookie-cutter Suburban house of the 1990s --but  to be upper class -- living in an Old Victorian, a house with some character, in the city center. Millenials grew up in the suburbs, we realized the suburbs were banal, lonely and lacked the character and excitement of city living.

I argue that there will be a break in our generation quite early-on between the haves (20%) and have nots (80%). The haves will live in and around city centers - they will have amenities that are all walkable.  The Suburban mom trope, especially of the Midwest, centered around privilege associated with being middle-class and white will be replaced by the Hipster mother which centers around socio-economic status.

The Hipster mom will be relatively well educated with a masters of professional degree. Generally having a career, they will be more liberal than the Suburban mom and will try to expose their children to a variety of diverse foods and cultures, yet still living in a mostly homogenous world. They will be a much smaller portion of the population than the Suburban mom, but still a strong voice in the political discourse. Many will have only one child. Gentrification will push the poor and middle class out of the center of the city toward the outskirts, the suburbs. There will be much less excitement about being middle class - the goal will change to being rich or affluent, if it is not that already!

Baby Boomers need to be especially wary of these potential trends. What happens when you have no buyers for your suburban homes? Prices fall. Baby Boomers should spend more time thinking about the possibility that they might not be able to sell their Suburban houses to Gen Xers and Millennials when they retire. "The average net worth of someone 29 to 37 has fallen 21 percent since 1983; the average net worth of someone 56 to 64 has more than doubled....For the first time in modern memory, a whole generation might not prove wealthier than the one that preceded it." NYT

Currently, most millennials just do not have the money to buy those houses and doubt that will change anytime soon. In addition, most wealthy Millenials are looking for houses in 'urbanish' areas that will probably not change if they have fewer children than past generations (very likely). Gen Xers and Millenials will eventually become the majority of buyers in the market and have accumulated much less wealth than Baby Boomers.

At some point, the rubber must hit the road. When consumer demand and ability to purchase houses falls, prices will also fall. "By 2030, some 26 million baby boomer households expect to sell their homes and retire, according to a recent Bipartisan Policy Center report." (The Fiscal Times)  If I was a Boomer, I would think about selling sooner than later. You may get much less than you expect from millennial homebuyers.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Inequality is more 'American' than '[insert food item here]'.....

Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.


Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.

Inequality is the 'new' buzzword for journalists and academics. Is inequality really new for America? I argue no, not at all... For most of American history, inequality has soared. Often the pernicious effects of inequality have been obfuscated by race.

Alexis de Tocqueville and others forwarded the argument that American was a more equal society than Europe. One of his famous quotes, "Americans are so enamored of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom." (The craziness of the quote is priceless.) De Tocqueville failed to understand the social structure of the time and helped to obfuscated our understanding of American inequality in the late 1700s.

Once the Native, African-American and Hispanic experiences were included -  inequality in American was comparable or worse to many other places in the world. Note, American, today would also be a much more equal society if we just included the experiences of white Americans.

During slavery, America was unequal. The majority of whites in the South were poor yeoman farmers. African Americans (except free peoples of color) faced the cold, hard reality of slavery. Through, Reconstruction, Gilded Age (late 1880s) and the roaring 20s, America was also UNEQUAL. The Gilded Age saw the construction of beautiful houses for the Carnegies, Rockefellers, but the average American faced poverty. Inequality was the norm in 1880s and politics were a pastime of the wealthy. Government offered workers almost no protections from hazardous work environments and consumers had little protection from hazardous products. Inequality continued into the 1920s.

What changed? The social reforms that occurred during the 20s and 30s (particularly during the Depression) and the post WWII boom lead to the growth of the American middle class from the 1950s to the 1970s. 

This period was extraordinary in American history. The 1950s also lead to the greatest expansion of industry, the academy, media and technology in American history.  Norms like the nuclear family which originated in the 1950s still color the mythos of what it means to be American. Why is this period so immortalized? If anything it was an extraordinary time where a number of factors came together serendipitously to produce a surprisingly equal America. Some of these factors include: the crumbling of Europe allowed America to dominate globally, a growing population, rising levels of education and business interests largely out of politics (See Mayhew 1977).

Since the 1970s,wages of the middle class have stagnated and the majority of all gains to the economy have almost exclusively gone to the top 10% and even more exclusively the top 1%.  We are just drifting back to the norm of American inequality. Why should we be surprised - this is the America of our forefathers.

Only extraordinary events of the Depression and WWII and their consequences lead us to the most equal time in American history.

Inequality is unlikely to decline anytime soon. I foresee no extraordinary events like those of the 1930s-1950s..America has lost it's industrial monopoly - we slowly moving toward a multipolar world, population is aging and declining and big business largely controls politics.  I predict it will take 10 to 20 years to really see any minor changes to level of inequality in the US. The growing diversity is likely to allow inequality to burgeon and fester long into the future.

 Is this too pessimistic of a view? Well, I hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

First-Mover Advantage

Being in the South Bay, it is hard not to notice the advantage to being a first-mover. It hovers in the air. I feel it on my back and it meanders into my thoughts constantly. The internet companies whose tree-lined campuses fill Silicon Valley where first-movers, Ebay, Amazon, Google. They found the low lying fruit of a new industry and snatched it right up. Not that this is necessarily easy. I'm sure that they faced a whole swath of difficulties such as their ideas were too novel, too high risk if the internet did not take off, and a heightened resistance from the established industries and investors. Still, I'm a little jealous. Being a tech entrepreneur today is quite a bit harder, most of the low-lying fruit is gone and the risk is still high. It makes me wonder what are the key new industries today? How does one find them?

Do only some generations get the watershed moments in technology? Every generation should crave a watershed moment. It is an awesome opportunity to affect the technology itself and society. Think of the model T, airplanes and television. Technology has a trajectory determined by those at the forefront and a cultural stamp of the people of that generation. What if different technologies were developed at different points in history, how would it have changed the technology itself? If the internet was developed in the 1950s, how different would it be, would the greatest generation have developed very different types of services or websites? Would internet porn have been banned? Would it not be as popular?

When looking back on history, it is easy to find those watershed moments, but how does one find them in today's world? Is it merely luck, passion or the correct alignment of the stars that leads you to those key places. How do you feel if you are part of those watersheds? It seems like historically one would never know if they were part of a key breakthrough in science, art or society, but today society seems to accept change at a faster pace. Those at the forefront seem to know it and embrace it. Are you at the forefront of some type of watershed technological or societal change? Describe.


The Greatness of Youth....

Young people of all countries, unite! Well, perhaps not so much. For millennials (including myself), economic times are TOUGH and sometimes I wonder whether it is us to blame or the broader structural factors. Is it because we expected a career path that resembled our parents? Are we wrong to think that the most prosperous period of American history would repeat itself?

I, for one, always thought finding a fulfilling career would somehow magically appear after I finished college. Looking back, this was an utterly na├»ve view. I wonder if I had thought more about the difficulties of getting a job after college in high school, whether I would have pursued a different path (gotten a more technical degree).

I don't think millenials are totally off the hook for their difficulties, but I would like to explore the structural piece in more detail (after all this blog is about demography). A large portion of finding a job is structural. Structural factors include the following: we graduated in a recession, the economy has fundamentally changed, workers are much less valued, inequality has risen, consumer spending has fallen, academia is out of touch and OUR GENERATIONS IS HUGE!

Yes, I agree some part of the jobs crisis in our generation is caused by the recession and other structural factors, but another contributing factor that has been overlooked is the UTTER size of our generation. Positions in school, work, government and other institutions are finite. There was a finite number of spots on our high school soccer team, a finite number of seats at Harvard and a finite number of jobs at Goldman Sachs/Walmart/Google. Our generation is the largest generation in American history, bigger than the Baby Boomers. To me, one of the simple reasons it seems that we are having a hard time is because the job market, was and still is, unable to adapt to handle the sheer size of our generation.

But, what does this mean for us millennials. Well, I think the future will look like this - we will be better educated than younger generations that follow us (we're already more educated than older generations), we'll get better objective test scores and we'll have more credentials, but we will still be stuck in worse jobs, get lower income throughout our lives, and have fewer promotions than our counterparts in other generations.

The reason why is somewhat straightforward. Simple supply and demand. A finite number of jobs and more demand for those jobs leads to more competition for everyone and lower wages for the lucky ones who get jobs. A large generation does not have to be a bad thing. If the government planned and facilitated greater job growth to meet the demands of a large generation, it could be a tremendous driver of economic growth to pull us out of this recession. Maybe leading to an even more prosperous period of American history.

The greatest benefit of a large generation is political clout, let's wake up and exercise it!


Demography, Demography....Why is it so fascinating?

Truth is...Any given society and it's social fabric is absolutely fascinating, especially how it changes and under what conditions. Demography, which is the study of death, babies and movement, helps us think about long run aggregate trends in the social sphere and how they map to future outcomes. There are a few questions that I find absolutely fascinating related to demography that I will write about in-depth. I would also love to hear your thoughts on these questions as well.

1) Inter-Generational Conflict in the US: The
young and old both crave state resources and historically resources have been taken from the young and redistributed to the old in the US. Will this continue into the future? Will there be a millennial versus boomer fight over Social Security and Medicare?

2) Race and Ethnicity in the US:  As a millennial is it obvious how diverse our generation is compared to the older generations. How does a society long divided by the socially constructed idea of race deal with rising number of multiracial individuals and growing populations of immigrants from around the world? Will skin color be the marker of status in American in 30 years, instead of race?

3) Childlessness among the millennial generation: I predict around 1 in 3 millennial women will be
childless. Right now among women 40-45, 19% are childless in the US. I think that will rise to around 33% for a whole host of reasons: delayed marriage and childbearing, economic cost of children, high unemployment and unemployment uncertainty, rising rates of infertility, no sense of urgency in our generation to actually have children and much less stigmatism for women who decide not to have children. Demographers assume the recent fall in fertility rates is due to the recession, which a degree of it probably is, but more so it is due to millennial patterns of household formation(Of course, I say this as a millennial myself.).

4) Fertility/Migration changes around the world: As every region moves to replacement rate, the rate at which population does not grow or 2.1 children per women, how does this affect global geo-politics. The only region that will continue to grow by 2050 is Sub-Saharan Africa. Will there by large scale migration from Sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa, Europe, North America and Asia to take care of aging populations?

What are your initial thoughts?