Work As Identity and the Social Safety Net

This week, I’m reading Jody Heymann’s The Widening Gap. This book makes a pretty compelling argument that if you’re a working mother in the United States and you aren’t especially well-off, you’re often forced to choose between providing adequate care for your kids and working. This is the same idea that Arlie Russell Hochschild finds in The Time Bind – she follows the workers at a firm in Middle America and sees that while flex hours are nominally an option for parents, it’s usually the moms who are expected to take them and they can’t take them without being perceived as less dedicated than other workers.

My personal philosophy of work, still nascent, is that we spend around half of our waking time in our adult lives doing work – that makes it inherently tied to our identity, no matter how we might like to say that it’s “just a job.” Then, the best world I can imagine is one in which everyone is perfectly fit to their work. In such a world, work is a meaning-making activity. It pays, but it also gives purpose to each person’s life.

I think in the current world, some people get work that gives their life a purpose. Some people get their purpose from elsewhere – maybe religion or service to their community or to their family. But I think the vast majority of people probably don’t see their lives as having much of a purpose at all. It took some noodling around the Gallup page on Well-Being, but I found this statistic: as of 2014, 44% of non-entrepreneurs surveyed did not feel a “strong sense of purpose.” For the entrepreneurs, that jumps to 51%.

So, here’s the issue I’m bumping up against: I believe that our work has the potential to give purpose to our lives. But so long as there isn’t an appropriate social safety net to provide care for our kids, our siblings, our spouse, our parents, or our grandparents, somebody in the family has to do that job. In practice, the lack of a social safety net keeps women at home and prevents them from realizing their purpose.

(Note: I’m not trying to denigrate people who choose to stay at home here – I think if you choose it, you’re probably deriving meaning from it. All I’m saying is that there is some non-zero proportion of women who are forced to stay at home when they might find another profession more meaningful.)

There are a few policy changes we could make, a few adjustments that might ease this:

  1. Year-round schooling with hours that make it possible to drop your kid off before work and pick them up directly after work.
  2. Shorter workdays – do we really need to be working for eight hours? Could we make a six-hour workday work? (I guess another question is: how many hours must we work per day to have purposeful work?)
  3. Laws that make you less likely to lose your job if you need time off to care for someone else – I think this should include anyone you’re caring for, even friends and weird cousins. After all, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 says that it’s fine if this leave is unpaid, as long as it’s job-protected. Given that you aren’t being paid, you’re just sure that you’ll have something to return to, I don’t think it should matter who it is you’re leaving work to care for.
  4. Expansion of benefits we already have – The FMLA is pretty nitpicky about who is eligible. You need to be at a firm that employs more than 50 people, you must be employed there for a year before applying for leave, and you have to have worked more than 25 hour per week in that year. More than expanding the FMLA though, there should be more flexibility for small, sudden illnesses – kid comes down with the flu or husband gets a stomach bug.

I have a dumb idea to solve the “but who’s going to do the job?” problem for firms: substitute workers. People who know that they’re going to be temporary and just filling in a slot. I think I’d be happy to serve as a waitress for an afternoon if I knew that I wasn’t going to have to go back the next day. I think if you wanted to pull this off, as a firm, you’d need to have a pool of semi-trained substitutes, or you’d need to assign that substitute to a task that makes trained employees’ life easier so that they can take over the tricky tasks. In waitressing, I’m thinking of fulfilling beverage orders, doing side work, and cleaning. You would need to be able to communicate via email and phone – when I’ve held service jobs in the past, they’ve only communicated via phone, and I usually don’t see that there’s been a call until it’s too late.

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Jobs I Can’t Have: Data Journalist

I have a confession to make. I actually really hate finagling with visualizations on various data analysis platforms.

I reached this conclusion about 10 minutes ago, and I think that it’s already changing my life. Up until 10 minutes ago, if you’d asked me whether I’d like to spend time learning how to more effectively visualize data, I would’ve said hell yes.

And who could blame me for not knowing myself! Just look at statisticians of any public acclaim whatsoever. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is chockablock with effective visualizations. The data folks at the New York Times create works of such staggering beauty and simplicity that you can just look at the graph without reading the article and know what they’re saying. And then there’s whatever the hell this sorcery is:

Crazy Scatterplot
Here’s the original link, if you’d like to spend the next five hours trying to assemble this bad boy.

Since I’m trained as a statistician, there’s always going to be a part of me that whispers, “You should be able to make this graph too.”

But I think at a certain point, maybe part of growing up is admitting that there are some things you would like to be able to do that you are just never, ever going to be able to do. I’m a firm believer in the idea that just about anyone can learn just about anything, but I think we also have to recognize how much it’ll cost you to get to an expert level.

Case in point: I just spent about an hour making this dumb scatterplot1:

ugly scatterplot
Honestly? What even is this?

It probably would take another two hours to get it to a point where it makes any sense. And in the meantime, though fiddling with graphics does make time pass quickly, it’s a little alarming to look up and see that an entire evening has passed you by and all you have to show for it is some crappy scatterplot.

This is a life-changing revelation because, in my mind, I was holding the door of data visualization expert open. If that door is firmly shut, I’m probably not going to become a data journalist. I could still work with data, but I’m always going need help from someone with better artistic sense and ggplot2 skills than I have.

This is a relaxing kind of realization. I can stop castigating myself for being such shit at graphics.


1. In my defense though, I did create this in Python, which I am only just learning. But it would still need a lot of work to be intelligible. Back

Is It Wrong to Do a Half-Assed Job? (Part 2)

A few days ago, I asked, “Is It Wrong To Do a Half-Assed Job?” I concluded that “if you have the enormous privilege of being a professional writer… you also have the obligation to actually write original material,” and founded this conclusion on the fact that you’re crowding out other writers if you sign a book deal. Wasting an opportunity that someone else would not have wasted is wrong.

There’s a lot that I didn’t pin down in here – what does it mean to “waste” an opportunity? Is it alright to put in a lower amount of effort if you know that your competitors, even at full effort, still wouldn’t produce something as good as you did? What if you’re not crowding anyone else out with your work – do you still have an obligation to put in full effort then?

I’ve been thinking about this whole idea more because, as you might know from reading the “About” page of this blog or the first post, I am a PhD student at Harvard who is considering leaving without my PhD. If I’m going to condemn Kroese for doing a shit job that someone else might’ve done better, then I could just as easily condemn myself. There was almost certainly someone I displaced by taking this slot in the PhD program – am I thus obligated to finish my PhD?

My guess is that this relates back to another question that I’ve been bouncing around for a while. (Warning, spoilers ahead for “Saving Private Ryan.”)

At the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” as Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, is dying, he tells Private Ryan to “earn this.” When I was watching this film for the first time a few years ago, I was immediately irritated with Captain Miller’s injunction. It seemed to me like the character of Private Ryan was already set up to be sensitive enough to the sacrifices people were making for him. Would the additional weight of a dying man’s orders make his life any better?

I guess it just seems to me that, if you’re going to save someone, you’d probably prefer that they live their best possible life. And I think telling someone that they have an obligation to do more with their life because people sacrificed for them is counterproductive to that end. Even the movie suggests that this order weighed heavily on Ryan: when he’s an old man, he asks his wife to tell him that he’s led a good life and that he is a good man.

In any case, for me it raised the question: what do we owe to the dead? What promises to the dead are we required to keep? (Thankfully, I’m not the only one who was bothered by this – this article in the Atlantic by John Biguenet has a pretty similar reaction.)

This idea of obligation is further complicated by the fact that Captain Miller’s health is failing – he has a tremor throughout the movie. We can’t be sure that he would’ve made it home to his wife even if he hadn’t been sent to rescue Private Ryan. If he was going to die either way, is Private Ryan still obligated by his death?

(Do Ryan’s grandchildren owe something to Captain Miller, for their lives?)

This series of questions is the most extreme version of “is it wrong to do a half-assed job?” I don’t have an answer to it yet, but my feeling is that:

  1. There’s some kind of statute of limitations on obligation that’s proportional to the size of the sacrifice and the certainty that the sacrifice could’ve been avoided – if someone gives me half of their lunch, I’m obligated to them for a much shorter period of time than I would be if they sacrificed their life. If I knew that that half of their lunch would’ve been wasted if I didn’t eat it, I have an even shorter obligation.
  2. You probably aren’t obligated to put your best effort into exactly what was sacrificed – you aren’t required to “have the best life” because someone sacrificed their life or to really savor a meal that someone else gave you or to write your best book because you’ve taken someone else’s spot.
  3. You probably are required to put that obligated effort in somewhere – if you aren’t going to enjoy the meal you’ve been given, then you’d better take the energy from that meal and do something useful with it. If you aren’t going to have a “good life,” maybe you’re required to help someone else have a good life?

So, in the case of Kroese, maybe it is alright that he copy-and-pasted those three pages, as long as he spent the time he saved well. Maybe it is alright if I leave without a PhD, as long as I leave to do something meaningful?

Is It Wrong To Do a Half-Assed Job?

Earlier this week, I read “The Big Sheep” by Robert Kroese, a funny detective novel set in future L.A. after some kind of economic apocalypse. It was good enough that when I saw that there was a second book out and in the library with the same characters, I eagerly snatched it up.

I was settling down to read this book, “The Last Iota,” yesterday. The first few pages were engaging, but then I hit a chunk of background that sounded very familiar. In fact, identical. I still had “The Big Sheep” checked out from the library, and a quick comparison showed that Kroese literally copied and pasted three pages worth of background from the first book into the second.

My gut reaction was that this is clearly wrong. But upon thinking about it, it’s not obvious that it is. Clearly this self-plagiarism passed editorial muster, so it can’t be that Kroese is violating his publisher’s rights to that material.1 It isn’t possible that he’s violating his own copyright by plagiarizing.

Still – something about copy-and-pasting material from one book into another seems deeply, deeply wrong to me. I would never copy and paste a paragraph from one blog post into another – and this isn’t even my job. I’m just writing for fun.

I asked my Facebook friends what they thought, and the most that we could agree on is that it’s lazy.

Which brings me to the question posed in the title: do you have a moral obligation to put in your best effort at your job?

The Internet hasn’t been very helpful in answering this question for me, probably because in order to answer the first question, you’d need to answer a lower-level question about what we’re morally obligated to do in general.

Here’s what I’m thinking so far: it might be less than a “moral obligation,” but we should put in our best effort at work. [I’m imagining that “should” indicates less serious consequences for not doing this than “moral obligation” would imply.] My thinking is that, one of the main points of being alive is to know yourself, and one of the ways you get to know yourself is by your work. If you put in a half-assed effort at work, you will not know what your capacity is – you’re effectively choosing not to know yourself.

This can’t be a complete account though, because it still doesn’t explain why I feel so angry about “The Last Iota.” Maybe part of it is that, if you’re choosing not to exercise your full capacity, you are occupying a space that someone else who is willing to exercise their full capacity would be happy to have. If you’re shuffling through your work day, checking Facebook and Instagram every time the coast is clear, that’s a job that someone else cannot have.

If you have the enormous privilege of being a professional writer, don’t you also have the obligation to actually write original material?


1. Of course, this is assuming that his editor did see that he copied. Either way, it seems like the editor is sort of implicated, since you’d hope that someone would’ve realized this would turn readers off. Back