Tag Archives: work

Compatibility with colleagues is like interoperability

Interacting with colleagues is like compatibility of programs, tools or machine parts – an individually very good component may be useless if it does not fit with the rest of the machine. A potentially very productive worker who does not work with others in the company does not contribute much.

The difference between an individual and a firm may be horizontal (different cultures, all similarly good) or vertical (bad vs good quality or productivity). The horizontal compatibility with colleagues includes personal appearance – wearing a shirt with a left-wing slogan may be fine in a left-wing company, but offend people in a right-wing one, and vice versa. When colleagues take offence, the strong emotions distract them from work, so a slogan on a shirt may reduce their productivity.

Vertical fitting in includes personal hygiene, because bad breath or body odour distracts others from work. Similarly, loud phone conversations or other noise are disruptive everywhere.

Easier combining of entertainment and work may explain increased income inequality

Many low-skill jobs (guard, driver, janitor, manual labourer) permit on-the-job consumption of forms of entertainment (listening to music or news, phoning friends) that became much cheaper and more available with the introduction of new electronic devices (first small radios, then TVs, then cellphones, smartphones). Such entertainment does not reduce productivity at the abovementioned jobs much, which is why it is allowed. On the other hand, many high-skill jobs (planning, communicating, performing surgery) are difficult to combine with any entertainment, because the distraction would decrease productivity significantly. The utility of low-skill work thus increased relatively more than that of skilled jobs when electronics spread and cheapened. The higher utility made low-skill jobs relatively more attractive, so the supply of labour at these increased relatively more. This supply rise reduced the pay relative to high-skill jobs, which increased income inequality. Another way to describe this mechanism is that as the disutility of low-skill jobs fell, so did the real wage required to compensate people for this disutility.

An empirically testable implication of this theory is that jobs of any skill level that do not allow on-the-job entertainment should have seen salaries increase more than comparable jobs which can be combined with listening to music or with personal phone calls. For example, a janitor cleaning an empty building can make personal calls, but a cleaner of a mall (or other public venue) during business hours may be more restricted. Both can listen to music on their headphones, so the salaries should not have diverged when small cassette players went mainstream, but should have diverged when cellphones with headsets became cheap. Similarly, a trucker or nightwatchman has more entertainment options than a taxi driver or mall security guard, because the latter do not want to annoy customers with personal calls or loud music. A call centre operator is more restricted from audiovisual entertainment than a receptionist.

According to the above theory, the introduction of radios and cellphones should have increased the wage inequality between areas with good and bad reception, for example between remote rural and urban regions, or between underground and aboveground mining. On the other hand, the introduction of recorded music should not have increased these inequalities as much, because the availability of records is more similar across regions than radio or phone coverage.

Giving oneself tenure

Senior academics tell juniors that an assistant professor does not have to get tenure at his or her current university, but “in the profession”, i.e. at some university. To extend this reasoning, one does not have to get tenure at all, just guarantee one’s ability to pay one’s living costs with as low effort as possible. Government jobs are also secure – not quite tenure, but close.
Economically, tenure is guaranteed income for life (or until a mandatory retirement age) in exchange for teaching and administrative work. The income may vary somewhat, based on research and teaching success, but there is some lower bound on salary. Many nontenured academics are obsessed about getting tenure. The main reason is probably not the prestige of being called Professor, but the income security. People with families seem especially risk averse and motivated to secure their job.
Guaranteed income can be obtained by other means than tenure, e.g. by saving enough to live off the interest and dividends (becoming a rentier). Accumulating such savings is better than tenure, because there is no teaching and administration requirement. If one wishes, one can always teach for free. Similarly, research can be done in one’s free time. If expensive equipment is needed for the research, then one can pay a university or other institution for access to it. The payment may be in labour (becoming an unpaid research assistant). Becoming financially independent therefore means giving oneself more than tenure. Not many academics seem to have noticed this option, because they choose a wasteful consumerist lifestyle and do not plan their finances.
Given the scarcity of tenure-track jobs in many fields, choosing the highest-paying private-sector position (to accumulate savings), may be a quicker and more certain path to the economic equivalent of tenure than completing sequential postdocs. The option of an industry job seems risky to graduate students, because unlike in academia, one can get fired. However, the chance of layoffs should be compared to failing to get a second postdoc at an institution of the same or higher prestige. When one industry job ends, there are others. Like in academia, moving downward is easier than up.
To properly compare the prospects in academia and industry, one should look at the statistics, not listen to anecdotal tales of one’s acquaintances or the promises of recruiters. If one aspires to be a researcher, then one should base one’s life decisions on properly researched facts. It is surprising how many academics do not. The relevant statistics on the percentage of graduates or postdocs who get a tenure-track job or later tenure have been published for several fields (http://www.nature.com/ncb/journal/v12/n12/full/ncb1210-1123.html, http://www.education.uw.edu/cirge/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/so-you-want-to-become-a-professor.pdf, https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jep.28.3.205). The earnings in both higher education and various industries are published as part of national labour force statistics. Objective information on job security (frequency of firing) is harder to get, but administrative data from the Nordic countries has it.
Of course, earnings are not the whole story. If one has to live in an expensive city to get a high salary, then the disposable income may be lower than with a smaller salary in a cheaper location. Non-monetary aspects of the job matter, such as hazardous or hostile work environment, the hours and flexibility. Junior academics normally work much longer than the 40 hours per week standard in most jobs, but the highest-paid private-sector positions may require even more time and effort than academia. The hours may be more flexible in academia, other than the teaching times. The work is probably of the same low danger level. There is no reason to suppose the friendliness of the colleagues to differ.
Besides higher salary, a benefit of industry jobs is that they can be started earlier in life, before the 6 years in graduate school and a few more in postdoc positions. Starting early helps with savings accumulation, due to compound interest. Some people have become financially independent in their early thirties this way (see mrmoneymustache.com).
If one likes all aspects of an academic job (teaching, research and service), then it is reasonable to choose an academic career. If some aspects are not inherently rewarding, then one should consider the alternative scenario in which the hours spent on those aspects are spent on paid employment instead. The rewarding parts of the job are done in one’s free time. Does this alternative scenario yield a higher salary? The non-monetary parts of this scenario seem comparable to academia.
Tenure is becoming more difficult to get, as evidenced by the lengthening PhD duration, the increasing average number of postdocs people do before getting tenure, and by the lengthening tenure clocks (9 years at Carnegie Mellon vs the standard 6). Senior academics (who have guarateed jobs) benefit from increased competition among junior academics, because then the juniors will do more work for the seniors for less money. So the senior academics have an incentive to lure young people into academia (to work in their labs as students and postdocs), even if this is not in the young people’s interest. The seniors do not fear competition from juniors, due to the aforementioned guaranteed jobs.
Graduate student and postdoc unions are lobbying universities and governments to give them more money. This has at best a limited impact, because in the end the jobs and salaries are determined by supply and demand. If the unions want to make current students and postdocs better off, then they should discourage new students from entering academia. If they want everyone to be better off, then they should encourage research-based decision-making by everyone. I do not mean presenting isolated facts that support their political agenda (like the unions do now), but promoting the use of the full set of labour force statistics available, asking people to think about their life goals and what jobs will help achieve those goals, and developing predictive models along the lines of “if you do a PhD in this field in this university, then your probable job and income at age 30, 40, etc is…”.

Salami tactics in everyday life

Salami tactics mean doing something others dislike little by little to keep them from obstructing or retaliating. Each small step is too small to be worth retaliation, but together the steps add up to an action that, if taken all at once, would definitely be worth stopping or retaliating for.
I have neighbours who put their unwanted things (broken bicycles, toys, furniture) in my parking space, using salami tactics. They don’t put the objects right in the middle of the space all at once, but initially put them mostly outside my parking space, with a small part of the object sticking into the space. If I don’t do anything, then the neighbours shift the objects so that a somewhat larger fraction of them is in my space, or add more objects that slightly stick into the space. If I push some of their rubbish out of my space, then other things appear, sticking into a different part of the space. They have plausible deniability in case I confront them – the object was only slightly in my space, so placing it there can be excused as an accident. This dance has gone on over a year, with them pushing their stuff into my space when I’m not there and me pushing it out when they are not there. Their encroachment attempts have become somewhat humorous, and I am observing them as a social science field study. The same encroachment happens in the common hallway, which fire regulations require to be clear at all times, but where the neighbours store their unwanted furniture. The furniture starts out near their door and gradually moves further and spreads out.
People in another house in this suburb have gradually squatted on a piece of the public park. They planted a hedge around that piece, which adjoins their dwelling. Now it is somewhat difficult to get into that part of the park (one has to squeeze through the hedge), so other people have stopped going there. It is effectively a private garden. The hedge did not appear overnight – the planting happened at a rate of about one bush per month, so it wasn’t too obvious to people who regularly pass through the park. The squatters planted the bushes in daylight, so deniability would have been a bit stretched if someone had confronted them. To some extent, planting one bush at a time in a public park can still be claimed an idle hobby, with no intent to encroach. However, the hedge that now clearly encloses a plot next to their dwelling does look suspicious.
A related tactic does not slice the salami slowly over time, but slices it many times at once to different people. At work, there are people who, upon receiving a task from the boss, ask one colleague at their level to help with one part of the task, another colleague to help with another part, etc, until they have delegated the whole task piece by piece. Each piece comes with an excuse why the delegator cannot do it. Then when the colleagues ask for help in return, the delegator is absent, unavailable due to family responsibilities or has some other excuse.

Vacation is a break from the routine

Marketing tries to create the perception that vacation consists of consuming goods and services. In my experience, some of the most interesting vacation activities are those that constitute work for some other people. In other words, production, not consumption, is restful. For example, I find fixing bicycles interesting, because the problems encountered are quite different from each other. If the fixes only consisted of patching flat tires, then that would get boring quickly. Similarly, if I had to fix bikes all day long, it would be onerous. But as an occasional break from my usual work (sitting behind a computer), bike repair is interesting and actually restful. Another example is planting trees and removing invasive plants from a woodland – this would get boring and tiring after half a day, but 2-3 hours every few months provides variety. Growing vegetables and fruit is a productive activity that many people do for fun in their garden. Cooking for others is also productive and often done for fun.
I would pay to operate a tractor, an excavator or a crane for a few hours, because I think it would be very interesting. Unfortunately, safety regulations probably forbid an amateur from operating heavy machinery. For the same reason, I cannot drive a truck or weld a ship for fun. Neither can I be an assistant at surgery, handing tools to surgeons, because the job requires training and probably some kind of licence. If it didn’t, I would be interested in observing a surgery first hand. Underground mining would also be interesting to try.
Some work is legal for (mostly) untrained people to undertake, but requires a long-term commitment, for example being a deckhand on a commercial fishing ship. After the first day, the work would get boring, so would not constitute vacation any more. The same may happen after a few days as a field research assistant of biologists, archaeologists or anthropologists in remote areas. The remote area may have its own discomforts and dangers, which are mostly not adrenaline-rich experiences that extreme sports fans would pay for. An example of a boring danger is catching a disease, getting heatstroke or frostbite.
A person who does the abovementioned activities for work would not find them restful. But quite possibly, such a person would find parts of my work fun and would be willing to do them briefly during vacation, for example drawing graphs on a computer or solving a math puzzle.
In summary, a vacation is a break from the routine. Because people’s routines differ, one person’s usual work is another’s interesting vacation activity.