Mental labor of the always connected

Amanda Marcotte has an excellent piece out on the mental labor that falls more heavily upon women in the household. While chores may be more evenly split, women are still the ones exerting the effort to split the work, to nag when it doesn’t get done, and finally, likely to do it if really doesn’t get done.

Though perhaps unrelated to gender, the piece prompted me to think about how my workload has changed over the course of my short teaching career. In particular, I find myself spending a lot more time with my students than I did when I first started, and more time fretting about them getting their work done. This is my invisible work, keeping track of student assignments, making sure they’re on track to finish their research papers, worrying about their sick grandmothers, and more. It reminds me of my college roommate, who since we’ve aged and mellowed a bit, has reminded me several times how stressed out I made her through my procrastination while students at Duke. As the years have gone by, students seem to want more of my email time, and at all hours of the day, even as the face time has not changed much. Like many professors, I try to limit my time on email. There are many activities and conversations that can be more efficiently performed in person. For instance, if you email me asking how to calculate Adjusted R squared and ask why it’s different from R squared, I’m going to ask you to come talk to me instead of typing out those equations. I promise you’ll learn it better and it will take both of us less time.

More and more of these emails seem to come in the middle of the night, before exams, before homework assignments are due, etc. I tend not to answer those late night emails and I don’t accept them as excuses for not doing work. I have a policy about late work; It’s in the syllabus. I’m not going to remind you of it a million times either. It’s your job to keep track of your work.

I do this partly for my own sanity (avoiding mental labor at least a few hours of the day), but also because I believe that as an educator, I should be preparing my students for the real world. They need to learn to produce timely work—even if it’s not perfect—to manage their time, to realize that help is not available at all hours. That’s the real world, right?

More and more of what I hear though, is that it’s not. One serious problem that professors have is that they don’t live in the real world they’re trying to prepare students for. The only jobs I’ve worked outside of academia since 2006 have been consulting, hardly indicative of day-to-day office jobs that are commonplace for recent grads (when they’re getting jobs, that is). While some friends assure me I don’t want to be there among the unwashed masses, it’s a real liability for professors, especially if a whole new economy has popped up around being constantly available and connected and cheap, as some are claiming.

In response, some universities are advertising for positions to be just that for students: constantly available, connected, and (likely) cheap. This Western Governors University position wants a PhD economist to be available essentially 24/7 to tutor students who are struggling. I admire them being honest about the hours and expectations, but is that really the most efficient use of a PhD’s time? Answering the same email over and over again at 3am about opportunity costs? And they have similar positions open in almost every field. Is it really in students’ best interests to reinforce that work should be round-the-clock? That someone will be there to answer questions all the time?

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, was recently lambasted by any number of individuals and groups for telling telecommuting employees that their flexible work schedule days are over and that employees can’t work from home anymore. While I disagree with the fundamentals of the decision for reasons that have to do with supporting working parents and caregivers, I’m sure she has internal reasons for her actions and the point about separation is important. It’s ridiculous how many of us check our email at the bar, respond to a client in the middle of dinner with another client, interrupt play time to read another message from our bosses. The WGU positions mentioned above actually erase all of those boundaries between work and home, keeping us constantly connected, constantly answering emails. There is no office, no in-real-life contact with students. It’s not teaching, but “mentoring,” and it reinforces the idea that someone should be working constantly. If you’re a student, it’s you and your professors. If you’re in the workforce, it’s you and your boss. If you’re the boss, it’s you and your employees.

College is kind of a special time. If you’re not up all night writing a paper, you’re up all night debating philosophy, or driving to the nearest Krispy Kreme, or or doing all manner of legal, illegal, silly, and serious things. There’s a reason that we don’t continue that madness (or at least some of us don’t) into our 20s and 30s, and especially not into our work.

And if work is really now 24/7, how the heck do we get it to not be? Certainly not by hiring people specifically for that purpose.

Thanks to @katinalynn for comments on a first draft of this post.

Advertisements

On Shared Consumption

Last week, I wrote about the economics profession’s new “power couple”, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson, and mentioned the idea of shared consumption driving marriage rather than shared production. In the comments, Katina asked me to explain shared consumption a bit more in depth and I promised her a longer post on the matter. I’m a little late, but here it is. I haven’t formally modeled any of this, and so I’ll say it’s not very clearly thought out, but in the name of elucidating the inner workings of this economist’s mind, I figured I’d at least outline my thoughts here.

One of the perhaps more complicated ways to define shared consumption comes from the study of public goods. Public goods are things like national defense or clean air. They constitute things that are non-excludable and non-rivalrous in consumption. There’s a lot of buzz words in that sentence, but just think about things that you can enjoy (or gain utility from) without diminishing someone else’ enjoyment (this is the non-rivalrous part) and things that, once they are in existence, no one can easily prevent someone else from enjoying it, say through an entrance fee (this is the non-excludable part).

Shared consumption goods are a little less strict than this, however. The idea of shared consumption lets us take what we would normally call “private” goods (non-public, like shoes–we both can’t wear the same pair of shoes) and give them some public (or sharing) aspects within a marriage or partnership.

A big shift in family economics has been to examine children as a public good. See, for instance, Chiappori, Iyigun and Weiss. The idea is that two people investing in a child reap benefits from both their own investment and the other’s investment. But this is a little convoluted for a non-economist, maybe.

Perhaps even simpler is when we take children out of the equation. Many couples these days marry without any intention of having children, even if though it might mean paying more in taxes. Two-earner households aren’t specializing in household production by one staying at home to cook and clean while the other works, but rather enter into a marriage for the purpose of keeping each other company.

To back me up, the New York Times published a piece outlining a significant demographic shift in parenthood over the past few years. Namely, more than half of children born to mothers under 30 are born to single mothers. If that’s not a refutation of shared production, I don’t know what is. This is a theme that is also prominent in my new favorite ethnography (not so new, really, but if you ever want to see me get really excited, ask me about Promises I Can Keep).

In addition, I’m currently reading Is Marriage for White People? by Ralph Richard Banks of Stanford Law. Early on, he cites a Pew study that says shared religious beliefs, shared interests, a healthy, happy sexual relationship and even sharing household chores were more important for a happy marriage than children. We’re not getting married to have children, necessarily, anymore, and when we are, we’re not convinced that specializing in raising the child is the best thing for one parent to do.

As pertaining to children, there’s a fine line between what constitutes consumption and production, but I think it’s safe to say that most matches aren’t happening with the primary purpose of building a home with a white picket fence in the suburbs and raising a couple of kids who go on to do the same. Americans are marrying to make themselves better off still, just not in the way that our parents and grandparents did.

Picking boys over girls

I start almost every class I teach with a sort of overview of economics and what kind of research I do. My favorite thing to do is throw out facts that seem controversial and get my students a bit riled up. In that vein, my favorite fact to throw out is that if you give money to women, they spend it differently than if you give money to men. I, of course, phrase it slightly more contentiously, claiming that men buy booze and cigarettes and women buy books. In the simplest terms, women are likely to spend an extra dollar on their children, while men are likely to spend an extra dollar on themselves, particularly in the developing world. This is a generalization, of course, and reflects averages, and doesn’t necessarily preclude that men will spend any money on their children. They of course are spending money on their children.

A new strand of literature, in fact, is attempting to tease out exactly how men and women spend money on their children, and in particular, whether there are differences by gender of the child. One of my advisors is very active in this literature and has a recent paper* in the AER on expenditures on children in Mexican immigrant families. She shows that the absence of a male head of household, through migration to the US, shifts resources towards female children. As men send remittances home, women make the decisions about how to spend the money, and thus spend more on girls. When the male heads return, and thus the man resumes decision-making power on expenditures, resources shift back towards the boys. As much as my students might think I’m crazy or sexist, who is making decisions in a household is of extreme importance in determining expenditure allocations.

*Antman, Francisca M. 2011. “Migration and Gender Discrimination Among Children Left Behind.” American Economic Review 100:3, 645-649.