A look at labor
UCI researchers offer highlights from their studies about work – how we do it, and what we produce
Looking for a little Labor Day trivia to liven up your barbecue conversations this weekend? Search no further than research centers at UC Irvine. Professors in computer science, social sciences and more have looked at different aspects of workers’ daily endeavors. Here are some examples.
The domestic duty divide: Determining who cooks and who cleans in a household may feel like a personal decision couples make, but UCI sociologist Judith Treas says culture and societal characteristics have a major influence on how such duties get divvied up in homes around the globe. In “Dividing the Domestic: Men, Women & Household Work in Cross-National Perspective,” Treas, co-editor Sonja Drobnic and collaborators combine international survey data – funded by a three-year National Science Foundation grant – with sociological analysis to explain why the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities rests with women, even as more of them are working outside the home. “Housework usually falls to the partner who has fewer competing time commitments,” Treas says. “If only because women work fewer paid hours than men, they do more housework. When a wife clocks long hours in the workplace, her husband pitches in more around the house. However, even self-sufficient individuals and egalitarian couples often fall back on more traditional gender arrangements. Sociologists have a term for this performance: ‘doing gender.’ ”
Help wanted: Farmers, construction supervisors and hotel managers may soon be scrambling to fill employment vacancies left by aging baby boomers, says UCI sociologist Frank Bean, but a U.S.-born labor force needed to replace them may not be there. The message was part of his briefing to members of Congress on April 2014. “We knew back in the ’70s that a decline was starting to happen among the less-skilled, younger U.S.-born population as baby boomers aged and more people began to pursue a higher education,” he says. “Over the past 40 years, that gap has widened, particularly from 1990 to 2010.” Using statistics from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey, his research found that employers had roughly 7.3 million fewer less-skilled, U.S.-born potential workers to choose from in 2010 than they did in 1990. For the younger population, the decline reached 12.3 million, he says. Yet the number of less-skilled jobs in the economy remained constant at 45.7 million from 1990 to 2010. So who filled the gap? “Immigrants,” says Bean. “Foreign-born workers have played a critical role in keeping the U.S. economy afloat. We’re reaching a critical point where we won’t have enough laborers to fill necessary jobs in our economy, and it’s time we took a hard look at immigration reform for a viable answer.”
Email vacations could boost productivity: Feeling anxious and under the gun because you’re battling an onslaught of incoming email? You’re probably not imagining it. Findings by informatics professor Gloria Mark shows that eliminating the constant distractions of work email significantly reduces stress and allows you to focus far better. Heart rate monitors were attached to computer users in a suburban office setting, while software sensors detected how often they switched windows. People who read email changed screens twice as often and were in a steady “high alert” state, with more constant heart rates. Those removed from email for five days experienced more natural, variable heart rates. “We found that when you remove email from workers’ lives, they multitask less and experience less stress,” Mark says. Those with no email reported feeling better able to do their jobs and stay on task, with fewer stressful and time-wasting interruptions. Measurements bore that out. People with email switched windows an average of 37 times per hour. Those without changed screens half as often – about 18 times in an hour. Mark says the findings could be useful for boosting productivity and suggests that controlling email login times, batching messages or other strategies might be helpful. “Email vacations on the job may be a good idea,” she notes. “We need to experiment with that.”
Minimum wage, maximum woe? In his book, Minimum Wages, UCI economics professor David Neumark warns against increasing the federal minimum wage. He argues such moves hurt younger workers by pitting them against older, more skilled adults when competing for the same jobs. “Teenagers either wind up working less and thus have less work experience to draw from in the long run, or they quit school to work because they can make enough money to survive without a formal education,” Neumark says. The increase hinders their ability to acquire advanced skills and earn higher wages.
Different views of workplace diversity: Your perception of diversity in your workplace can depend on how often you see a face that resembles your own, according to a new study by researchers at UCI, UCLA and the University of Virginia. Christopher Bauman, assistant professor at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business, was among the scholars who found that a particular team or organization can look quite different to people depending upon their backgrounds and racial identity. Imagine, for example, a team of six people that includes four whites and two Asians. This team will seem reasonably diverse to whites and Asians, but it will not appear diverse to African-Americans. At the same time, a team that includes four whites and two African-Americans will seem fairly diverse to whites and African-Americans, but it will not appear diverse to Asians. Importantly, these two teams are equally diverse in terms of number of races and number of racial minority group members they include, but they feel quite different to people whose race is left out. “Our research shows that a lack of diversity may simultaneously trouble some people but not be apparent to others,” Bauman says. “We believe many leaders of organizations may underappreciate how much of a concern diversity is for their employees and job candidates.”
Working moms can stop feeling guilty: Research shows that children of women who return to work before their offspring turn 3 are no more likely to act out or fail at school than kids whose mothers are full time homemakers. The findings, published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, stem from 50 years of data on maternal employment and academic performance. UCI’s Wendy Goldberg and JoAnn Prause conducted the analysis along with Rachel Lucas-Thompson, formerly of Macalester College in Minnesota. However, the outlook isn’t entirely rosy for offspring of career-minded moms, specifically those who work full time during the first year of a child’s life. “We observed slight increases in problem behaviors, such as acting out, among children whose mothers were employed full time during their first year,” says Goldberg, professor of psychology & social behavior and education. Kids in financially secure families may not see as many advantages when mom works full time, but maternal employment can make a big difference in the lives of low-income youngsters. “Children from poor families, such as those receiving public assistance, showed more benefits from having a working mother than did children in higher-income families because the boost in take-home pay could lead to more nutritious food, better housing, more books and other enrichment opportunities,” Goldberg says.
All work and no school makes at-risk adolescents more antisocial: Many high school students work in addition to going to school, and some experts argue that employment is good for at-risk youths. But new research has found that placing juvenile offenders in jobs without ensuring that they attend school may make them more antisocial. The study, co-authored by Elizabeth Cauffman, UCI professor of psychology & social behavior and education, appears in the journal Child Development. Going to school regularly without working was associated with the least antisocial behavior, and high-intensity employment (defined as more than 20 hours a week) was associated with diminished antisocial behavior only among youths who also attended school regularly. Those who worked long hours and didn’t attend school regularly were at the greatest risk for antisocial behavior, followed by youths who worked long hours and didn’t go to school at all. These effects occurred during adolescence; by early adulthood, working more than 20 hours a week was associated with less antisocial behavior. Cauffman and her colleagues studied about 1,350 serious juvenile offenders who were 14 to 17 years old at the beginning of the study.
Tax credit doesn’t benefit single parent families during recession: When the economy tanks, subsidy programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit can become unintended safety-nets for lower income working families trying to make ends meet. A study by UCI economist Marianne Bitler looks at this program’s new role, finding that married couples with children benefit more from the subsidy when times are worse than do single parent households, who otherwise constitute the majority of EITC recipients. “Job loss for a single earner generally eliminates family earnings altogether, potentially rendering them ineligible for participation in the EITC at a time when a safety net of some sort may be needed most,” she says. The findings appeared in the journal National Bureau of Economic Research Digest.