Inequality and social change, 2022 pontification edition

Someone paid me to talk about social trends for an hour. To get your month’s worth, I recorded my end of the conversation, cut out some of the dumber parts, and then tried out Happy Scribe to transcribe it, which cost a few dollars. The lightly edited text is below.

And you can listen to it on your holiday drive or doing the dishes. Sped up a little (I sound smarter and less boring that way) and with some editing, it’s 30 minutes. Here’s the Soundcloud link:

Here’s the text:

Fast and slow, unequally

I think my two overarching things are one, sort of a disjuncture between fast and slow. A lot of things have slowed down, but things have slowed down very unequally. So you have relatively rich people staying home all day while life goes by at the same speed on their phones, and at their jobs. And I think that just widens the gap in perceptions of how people see and understand the world.

And the second thing is really widening inequality. Inequality is very foundational to what’s happening socially right now. Even if you’re only looking at one person, the inequality affects that person because it affects their social context. So inequality is a property of groups but it affects everybody’s experience. This feeds into all kinds of other polarization that we have, just growing differences in perception and experience, which are increasingly sort of unstable or unpredictable.

In the olden days, when it took six months to get information from between Europe and North America, things that happened six months ago were only happening now. And then instant communication means the whole world is happening at the same time. That’s a very new experience for us. So time is perception of time and place is foundational. We have to get used to the size of what just happened. If we had something like a 40% drop in people moving around last spring – nothing like that has happened in modern times. So even if we get down to just 5% or 10%, that would have been huge on the previous scale. So even if there’s a large reduction in the pandemic effect, we’re still dealing with disruptions on a historic scale, even if things moderate quite a bit. I think we’re still looking at a quite different landscape when it comes to things like how people relate to their work, their physical spaces and other things, also, as far as sense of risk.

A lot of it depends on the pandemic. Some things are already certain — global travel is going to be disrupted. If all you do is go between two countries in Europe for vacation, maybe not so much, but business travel, travel to poor countries, it’s going to be radically disrupted regardless of what happens at this point with the pandemic. So that’s already sort of written in.

Families

Family life. I think you can say some aspects have become more intense. Time together has increased. Some aspects have become less intense. So time together with extended family has been decreased. So I would expect certain things to follow from that, like people prioritizing family oriented leisure. If you couldn’t see your grandparents for the last two years, then your next vacation. Very well, maybe to visit your grandparents instead of going to Euro Disney.

And so that will change people’s priorities. Short term priorities. As far as making up for things they lost, people are getting together to have graduation parties for the graduations they missed. So there’s a big backlog of things weddings, baby showers, things that are celebrations or things that people consider to be milestones or life events that they don’t want to just lose. If you lost a breakfast at your favorite restaurant, you don’t have to make that up. But if you lost your grandmother’s 80th birthday party, that might be something that you do make up. So I think there’s a lot of catch up to be done that we’ll see in social life.

That relates actually to the inequality issue. To some degree, the first evidence we saw the sort of supply chain issues that are beguiling us so much now in the US were actually construction related things like lumber that started right away. And that’s when we realized that people were rich.

People who were staying home were renovating their homes a lot already in the pandemic, which seems sort of counterintuitive, like, normally, that’s something you do during economic good times and so on. But then we saw real estate prices going up. So we see that for people whose incomes were not disrupted, their consumption didn’t decline. And in fact, it may have shifted to be more active in some respects, especially in the home sphere. People investing in improving their homes and furnishings

Take me and my home office. I mean, I painted the wall green — by the time I painted the wall green that means I was thinking about a semipermanent situation in my house. So this used to be the guest room. Now it’s the office.

That’s very minor. But that’s indicative of the sort of the changes that people made that have their own momentum and some of them become permanent.

Fear and uncertainty

So people becoming more home oriented seems somewhat inevitable, but also the fear and uncertainty. It’s very unpredictable what that does. But I think it’s inevitable that we’ll have more. I don’t know if you remember, there was sort of a meme in 2020 that was sort of like, oh, how could this year get any worse? And then the joke was like, 2021 is the same. And I think part of that is just coping with the reality of a baseline shift in risk of catastrophic things.

So now climate change events that are unambiguously attributable to climate change are more frequent just over the last few years. Maybe it’s just our consciousness to some degree, but it certainly is the perception that, oh, this is going to change. Oh, this is the erosion of democracy. This is the fear of global health crisis.

People already talking about things like the next pandemic. I heard today that they’re changing the way the doors work on the buses in our city to allow people to enter from the rear, which was a problem during the pandemic because they wanted people to enter from the rear so that the bus driver wouldn’t have to face everybody and have risk. Well, they said on the news today, it also will be helpful in a future public health crisis to make this change. Well, we never cared that much about preparing for public health crisis before, so now we do.

Polarization and culture wars

I think what both the mask and the vaccine things show us — which are both such ridiculous issues to have culture wars over — I think what it shows us is that we’ll do it over anything. So even if we don’t continue to have politically polarized, culturally divisive conflicts over masks and vaccines, we’ll find the next topic.

That’s a reality that we have to anticipate beyond the pandemic. I think barring an extreme evolutionary development by the virus itself, we’re not going back to this sort of mass death event of the early pandemic. But again, if we realize how much our baseline has shifted, even if we’re making 5% to 10% adjustments, it’s still huge. And I think the people’s sense of what they would call ontological security, like the sense that I know how the world works, is disrupted.

And I think the polarization and cultural war stuff that we see is partly reaction to that. It always was partly reaction to social change. It always was, oh, some people saying, Why do you have to change the society so much? Why do we need the Internet? Why do we need affirmative action? Why do we need immigration? Why can’t we just have the world the way it used to be? So to the extent that social change is accelerated, then the culture war stuff inevitably will be, too.

And I can also add this is geopolitical, which is really not my area. But some of this is stoked by conflict between countries. So like the Russian intervention and the US political system — there are just opportunities for people to make mischief deliberately. Once we have exposed this vulnerability, once we expose that we’re prone to turn anything into a culture war, then it’s easy for anybody to take advantage of that, whether it’s companies with simple commercial objectives or countries with massive geopolitical ambitions.

One of the irrationalities about people react how people react to the virus is that they tend to be more afraid they’ll catch the virus from people who are not like them. So people don’t wear masks around their neighborhood, although they might when they leave the neighborhood. I think that perception is just sort of other people are more scary.

Diversity and social change

The race and ethnic equity and diversity issues become wrapped up in whatever else is going on. The fact that the Black Lives Matter protests were so enhanced during the Pandemic year was not an accident because it was a sense of things being a dramatic change and uncertainty, and people not liking the people have had enough.

So I think that continues. I do think there are generational changes in that which we haven’t yet grappled with. You can see this a little bit with how different young people’s attitudes are about gender and gender identity to older people, how fast something so fundamental shifted that a large portion of young people have a very different attitude toward gender identity than five years ago.

Generational change is very important. And if we think about how this has changed during the pandemic times, I think it had to do with how old you were when the pandemic came. And so how you were affected. Kids who were in school and had to switch school at home will be permanently affected. We don’t know exactly how much, but the impacts on academic achievement have been pretty dramatic in the US and very unequal. So low income and minority kids lost more reading and math and science development than richer kids. And that’s in an amount that would have shocked us before. And you can get some of that back. But you can’t get that all back.

I think if you look at the mental health data on young people, just a phenomenal crisis in terms of depression and anxiety, suicidal ideation. Young people’s mental health is in trouble. I see it in my students, and we see it in the data. And so that stays with them to some degree that experience stays with them forever. But in terms of cultural shifts, like the kind of things people think about with generational change, or are they more progressive? Are they more open minded?

Are they becoming more entitled, more spoiled and all those issues? I think a lot of that is really just age related, not generational. It’s old people thinking, kids these days. But there are some things that change.

The baby boom generation, especially in the US, was a generation that experienced change more than over the course of their lives more than other people. So if you were born in the you were born into that stereotypical 1950s family, those people are the people who destroyed that in their own lives. So just in the course of one generation, they were born in the 1950s family, and then they created the 80s family.

They’re getting older. So they get more conservative in some sense. But they’ve changed the way we do old age things that old people do now that the baby who brought us include divorce, include coming out as transgender, being more willing to adopt other kinds of family forms, like cohabitation, like living apart together, the whole attitude towards sex at older age. Those things came from that generation. And those things are young people can look forward to moving into that kind of old age. It’s harder to see what today’s young people are going to bring into older ages.

Demographic change

So what I said before about giant change, slipping back into just very large change, I think maybe what we see. So the overall birth rate decline in the US in 2020 was about 4%, which is the biggest one year change in 50 years. So that was crisis response.

But we’re still seeing lower birth rates. We already were seeing lower birth rates. So it’s a question of how the pandemic merged with existing trends. And here I’ll go back to the slow thing. Demographic things all slowed down except death, birth slowed down, marriage, divorce even slowed down and migration, at least immigration migration within countries.

Even if those things head back towards normal, the shifts that we saw were pretty big. If you look sort of between November and February, that four-month period birth rates were probably down in the US more like 10%. So half a year of a 10% decline is a very big ripple, no matter what.

And you can’t get that back. That’s the way birth rates work is even if you can’t have more babies born last year, no matter what you do. Even if birth rates come back. And I think probably what we’re going to see with birth rates is a combination of some births that we make a distinction between quantum and tempo, between births that are permanently lost and birds that are delayed. And there’s a relationship between them. If all young people together decide not to have a baby this year, and then they all decide that they will do it next year, some of them won’t.

So there’s a relationship between delay and total and total decline that we’ll definitely see. So birth rates are going to be down. And so that means population growth so slow. That means populations will continue to age. And even if it’s a short term effect, it’s contributing to the longer term trend in that direction in all developed societies, for sure.

When we look at the other demographic things like marriage and divorce, it’s the kind of thing where you could see a rebound that makes up for those things. I think when housing prices go down, it’s harder to divorce because you have to sell your house to divorce. On the other hand, high house prices give certain people opportunities. Okay, so if there’s, like, a roaring 20s reaction and we’re all thrilled and excited when this is all over, you could see a rebound of certain things like marriage. But so far, there’s no sign of that. We had a huge decline in 2020, and it’s come back a little bit, but it has nothing to make up. So we lost a lot of marriages, maybe forever.

And then when it comes to migration, in terms of the wealthy societies, immigration was the only hedge against population decline. And if the culture turns more against immigration, either because of racism and nativism or because the pandemic prohibits travel and stuff, then that means that our ability to respond to population decline is reduced.

So population decline seems pretty inevitable in the rich countries being accelerated by these events.

Policy and economics

Well, I do think there’s a possibility on health, a good possibility that this whole thing in the US pushes us more in the direction of paying attention to public health and maybe even access to health. I was really intrigued that everybody assumed that COVID related testing and vaccination, of course, would be free. There’s no reason that COVID stuff should be free, but cancer treatment is not. It’s just that it happened so fast and we had to deal with it. It’s sort of like we learned how important healthcare is.

So, of course, Americans, no offense, are terrible at learning lessons, but it’s possible some people there’s possibly positive direction, positive change in some of that area. We’ll understand the public responsibility for things like healthcare. I am afraid that for personal relationships and romantic relationships and families, it’s mostly damage. So even if there’s sort of silver linings and people come to appreciate the good things in life and so on, those are all rebound effects from trauma and so they don’t overcome the bad things. I don’t see that happening anyway.

So if you think about the vulnerability and fear and heartache and all those things, I don’t know, I guess I think people will overreact will overreact to things in positive and negatively. So if you’re trying to predict people’s behavior, it probably gets harder and riskier. Well for white collar and middle class people. Certainly a shift. The working at home is not going away.

And it’s very class skewed. It’s not only related to income and status, but it’s highly correlated and it’s not changing. I mean, it’s not going all the way back.

So that’s very big. When we talk about the great resignation and people quitting their jobs again. Remember the scale, if we have a 10% increase in unemployment for a few months, that’s extreme. And we shouldn’t expect that to ever happen again. So if a few million people quit their jobs in anger, that might be a one-time thing. But if quitting your job in anger becomes even 5% more likely in the coming years, that’s very noticeable from a business perspective. And so I think some of that continues inevitably. So I think it fits into the pattern of diversity where we will see some people happy, attached, risk averse stay in their jobs. And some people fed up disgruntled, unable to accept frustration, will quit their jobs. And if the baseline is nobody quit their job and you can’t quit your job less than zero amount.

So if the experience diverges, it shows up as a rising average, because even if some people love their jobs more, they can’t quit their jobs less than zero. So inevitably we have more people quitting their jobs, even if what’s driving that is just a greater unpredictability to work. So if you’re expecting your employees to stick around, you’re going to have more of them quitting anyway. Yes, definitely more people quitting with technology and Zoom and all that. And like this, more work being outsourced and including geographically. So that is going to include international call centers and all that stuff that was already happening. People reading your chest X ray in India and all that is only going to happen more and more.

One thing I did want to mention is that global travel being reduced changes people’s perspective on things, even if not everybody travels globally between countries, those that do have a disproportionate impact, even if it’s only middle class or rich people who travel to other countries for vacations.

Those people have more impact on the culture than poor people. And so the loss of that and the fact that the pandemic is diverging between rich and poor countries means that travel is not coming back the way it was, and that’s bad for our attitudes, our open mindedness, our cultural integration, like all those things, are undermined by the loss of global travel, which I think we’re going to have for quite a while.

Youth power

If you look at in the US when we had was that rash of school shootings and that generation very short generation, a few years of young people who are super into gun control and were great activists and brilliant spokespeople or like Greta Thornberg with the climate change.

These things maybe are ephemeral, like they come and go. But on the other hand, I would expect young people’s progressive, not everybody, but like a large portion of young people doing progressive things dramatically. I think that will only continue. And that’s great, mostly that’s for the good, even if it increases kind of generational conflict, generational conflict, probably in the long run, is a positive thing. Young people are usually more right than old people.

So climate change inevitably will be a huge part of that. But I don’t know what they’ll do next, whether it’s gender, race, climate change or whatever. But I think don’t expect that permanent presence of a surprising group of young people suddenly showing up and doing something dramatic. So I expect that to keep happening unpredictably. And I think that’s definitely good.

Socialism

I think part of what happens as the Cold War fades is that the label doesn’t mean anything doesn’t have carries no negative connotation with young people anymore.

There’s no socialist country or society that is creating a negative example right now. Nobody really believes that China is Communist or whatever that doesn’t register with people who want more redistributive policies. So they don’t think, oh, no, we’ll become China if we raise taxes on Mark Zuckerberg. So to young people, that’s nonsensical to old people that still carries weight. But yes, and go back to the question of scale.

We spent a few trillion dollars on infrastructure. I think the idea of raising taxes 10% on rich people and redistributing that wealth will seem very, not shocking to young people. And so I do think that continues. And whether or not that actually becomes policy. I don’t know.

But I do think that the baseline has shifted on what’s an acceptable amount of economic disruption because doing things on a very large scale is not surprising. We just sent every kid home for over a year. So they’re not going to be shocked at the idea of a 10% tax increase on rich people, which would be totally revolutionized to welfare state in the US.

But in terms of stimulus and infrastructure, they’re pretty big. If they get the second one passed, then that could become baked in as new normal, a higher degree of infrastructure spending which us desperately needs. People do not realize. Americans have been very slow to realize how badly our infrastructure was failing. And I think Biden was very smart. And the Democrats were very smart to package all this other social stuff as infrastructure like elder care and prescription drugs and all that stuff.

Even if that doesn’t radically change people’s ideology in some ways, even if they just successfully spend that money, it will have a large effect. So that does mean things like Internet and airports and things like that could be improved, which are positive, even if they don’t, even if they’re not exciting on social media. I do think those things are pretty big. It’s not gone. It turns out the people who said Trump was just a symptom of a larger problem were right.

Trumpism

And so even if Trump died today, I don’t think it’s not going away. And what it means in politics is virulent racist nationalism is probably increasing. It means respect for democratic norms is less stable or secure than in the past.

And that also increases. And it means in terms of my kind of work, like social science and science in general, it means the science denialism, the undermining of the scholarship fascism like to tell us the authoritarians want to undermine truth itself. They don’t want us to be able to have a discourse that has any rational basis. And I think that continues when you look at the politicians. One thing the Democrats still haven’t learned is that explaining to the public that the Republicans are hypocrites doesn’t hurt them. They don’t care, the public doesn’t care, and the politicians don’t care. So that just increases. And in Europe, the far right nationalism has the added feature of being related to conflict between countries, especially Russia. And so it just continues to be stoked. So I think that’s bad.

And it continues. And in terms of democratic values such as they are, I think it’s quite bad.

Technology

I think a lot of the way technology gets into our heads is usually unconscious. And so one of the reasons why people are so angry at Silicon Valley and social media companies and things is because they always seem to know where we’re going before we get there. And it’s partly because they build us the ramp to get to the next place we’re going. So when Facebook introduced the Like button, nobody realized that that was going to change the way the Internet works for everybody.

So things like that keep happening. I don’t put much stock in the Mark Zuckerberg Metaverse at the moment, but on the other hand, I do think the people who will determine that are not us.

So the way we cope with these changes is by using technological tools. On the other hand, we’re stuck using the tools they give us. And I think that’s sort of true if you look at the smart technologies, the Internet of things, the things that connect everything to each other. I think people don’t realize how much of that capacity is becoming already part of our regular lives.

So even if it’s just your watch knows what your phone knows what your computer knows, what your thermostat knows what your car is doing, those things. It’s unpredictable, like we don’t realize we need those things, but we’re going to get used to them more and more. And the way that they make people want those things is by sort of the quantification of self. So like your watch tells you your calories and your steps that you’re breathing and your heart rate and also your consumer confidence and your insurability that stimulates people’s competitive thinking and their sense of responsibility sort of what they would call neoliberalism: if you fail, it’s your fault. The more people believe that, the more they want stuff like a daily score.

I think if the people trying to sell this technology are going to have figured this out, that you do it in the sense of giving people the illusion of control and self improvement and all that, that’s what people think they want. So you want your car to tell you that you haven’t taken enough steps today and they don’t realize that that involved that technologically.

What that means is that everything has to communicate with everything else. So they’ll tell us what we need and then we’ll demand it.

The bottom line

I still think it’s inequality. I mean, we were already upset about inequality, the people who were concerned. But even if you’re not upset about inequality, what it does is it widens the gap in perception and experience.

We’ve said before, if inequality increases crime and crime increases fear, then inequality is bad for rich people, too. It makes them afraid and anxious. And that’s maybe metaphorical. But I think it’s really true. So the divergence in perception is just large.

And I think you see it in sort of what Andy Slav at the public health expert, called in his book, the room service lockdown. Some people were locked down and some people were delivering them things. And I think Bob Dylan said in the whole world, like some of us are prisoners and some of us are guards.

It’s polarization in the literal sense of just extreme differences in experience. And so that undermines all kinds of social things. But I also think it just becomes a source of stress. And I think it contributes to the mental health problems. Honestly, if you interact with people that have a very different perception of life than you, it’s just harder to relate to them. And people are social, and they need to relate to each other. And so the widening gulf in experience between different groups just makes social life more tense and more difficult. And so I’m sorry to have my main social trend to be so negative. But I do think it is mostly negative. And that’s then to the extent that good things happen, it’s in response to that.

I’m optimistic about young people, that’s always the potential. But I do think that the underlying thing that we’re reacting to is the shift. Inequality, not just economic but in difference in experience and perception.

Why I’m leaving the American Sociological Association

Photo by Markus Meier flic.kr/p/Qyv1HN.

I have come to the difficult decision not to renew my membership in the American Sociological Association (ASA). I tried to change the organization for the better over a period of years, including service in elected office, but I failed. Although the association does some good things, for me the good/bad balance has tipped sufficiently that I need to withdraw.

ASA is too expensive. As membership tumbles, a survey showed the biggest problem was the expense of membership and the annual meeting, and they did nothing substantive about it. Association operations are top heavy, bloated, and wastefully inefficient.

ASA lacks the capacity for change. As is common with academic associations, the academic leadership is transient while the staff stay. The staff are working in the associations industry, the membership are working in the academia industry, and their interests conflict. The association won’t make structural changes because they simply take too long to happen — when members try to make changes the staff don’t like, they just stall it out.

ASA is inequitable. The greatest source of income for the association is publications, which is mostly subscriptions to journals paid by academic libraries, which are being bled dry by profit-making publishers that ASA organizes academic labor to subsidize with free content and editorial services. This is a wealth transfer from poorer, teaching-intensive libraries to richer, research-intensive libraries. ASA could publish its journals at much lower cost, and make them open access, but the association wants the money. People say open access will cost cash-strapped authors more, and claim this model is good for scholars at less prestigious universities, but they’re wrong. Publication in ASA journals is overwhelmingly dominated by elite institutions, and they should be paying for it. Instead, ASA has more than doubled subscription fees in the last 8 years.

Image
PNC figure.

ASA opposes open access. The association has had many years to consider alternative publishing models, and it simply never has. The leadership signed a new 7-year contract with the for-profit publisher Sage in 2018, with no substantive discussion with the membership and no advance notification. The Sage paywall and subscriptions from broke academic libraries are the association’s lifeblood. To pacify open access advocates, Sage gave ASA Socius, the open access journal, which is great — even though it’s subsidized by the association’s immoral business model, I like it and publish in it (and I will continue to, even though I will have to pay more when my membership expires). This is part of a broad strategy by legacy publishers to undermine fundamental change in the industry.

In 2019 the association leadership and staff signed a letter to the White House voicing opposition to the open distribution of federally-funded science reports. I organized a petition against it. More than 200 people signed, including many members. The Publications Committee managed to pass a resolution stating our opposition to the letter and urging the ASA Council to take up the issue — which the Council ignored.

ASA opposes open science. A number of members of the Publications Committee spent several years trying to get the association’s journals to adopt several versions of a simple policy to notify readers of whether published work includes access to research materials, such as data, questionnaires, and statistical code (detailed here). After two subcommittees eventually produced an extremely moderate policy, the Council rejected it. Last I checked, only 1-in-6 articles in American Sociological Review meet minimal standards of research transparency.

ASA leadership and staff block change. Back to that petition. The effort to get member voices heard on the issue of the ASA letter to the White House, involved a truly ridiculous and insulting struggle against the staff in the Publications Committee — in which, among other shenanigans, the staff invented a rule that would prohibit me from participating in the discussion of my own proposal. They have perfected the art of bureaucratic stagnation, which includes various strategies to pacify the academic leadership by allowing minor reforms that don’t touch the association’s basic workings. And Sage throws the leadership a nice party at the conference.


ASA does some good things. It publishes good research. It offers mechanisms for community and collaboration. In recent years it has, through member elections, elevated the visibility and prestige of women and scholars of color. The leadership sometimes makes good, important public statements. For myself, these things are no longer enough. I devote a lot of my time to running SocArXiv (for which I am not “paid”), which publishes any sociologist’s research for free. I do trainings and give talks to help sociologists communicate about their work, to develop community and collaboration. In my public work, mostly on social media, I try to elevate the visibility and prestige of women and scholars of color. If ASA makes good statements, I’ll share them, too.

It’s not personal, it’s just not worth the effort anymore. I’ve come to the conclusion ASA is going to have to hit bottom before it has a chance to turn itself around. I hope that people declining to fund its dysfunction with their membership dues — while taking our efforts to develop and promote sociology outside the association — may be a useful part of that process.


Read all posts about ASA at the tag.

Inequality heatmaps: marriage and working from home

To a kid with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So I used the same kind of figure for two different datasets. Materials at the end.

Marriage

Regardless of how you think about the causal relationship between marriage and men’s economic wellbeing, it’s an important fact that marriage in the US has become more economically polarized, with the social class gap in marriage prevalence widening.

Recently, Scott Galloway wrote a bad blog post about marriage and men, which included this truly terrible and misleading figure, which pours bad data analysis of the General Social Survey (see here) into a manipulated-axis clustermuck, which doesn’t even manage to show much of a correlation:

Anyway, Galloway also recycled a figure from bad 2012 blog post from the Hamilton Project. Bad work, but the trend is real, so I updated it and made a different kind of figure, using a heatmap with geom_tile in R, inspired by Kieran Healy’s Baby Boom heatmap. And I added women, separately.

Using the Current Population Survey (CPS) Annual Social and Economic Supplement (downloaded from IPUMS.org), I broke men and women down into 10 income deciles in each year from 1980 to 2021, and calculated the percentage of each cell that was married (and not separated) at the time of the survey. This is men:

This shows that rich men are much more likely to be married than poor men, and the gap has grown even as marriage rates have fallen across the board. The figure for women is more complicated, and is a good way to remind yourself that the causal story here is not as simple as some people make it sound.

In 1980, women with higher incomes (their own incomes) were the least likely to be married (not get married, be married). The most likely to be married were women with just a little income. Now, women with the highest incomes are more likely to be married than all but the bottom 20 percent. The biggest drop has been among women with low incomes. (Remember, these are cross-sections, so it’s not necessarily reflecting change over time in these women’s lives.) This is an inequality story, as high income women are more likely to be married (with spouses who have incomes as well), and low income women are more likely to be single (without spouses). Cohabitation, which is not included here takes some of the edge off this, but not that much.

Working from home

Starting in May 2020, some forward-thinking people at the Bureau of Labor Statistics added a question to the monthly CPS:

At any time in the LAST 4 WEEKS, did (you/name) telework or work at home for pay BECAUSE OF THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC? (Enter No if person worked entirely from home before the Coronavirus pandemic)

At the time, the great majority of workers in some occupations — especially teaching — were working from home, as their workplaces were shut down by epidemic mitigation policies. Others, such as cooks and waiters, were either unemployed or working in dangerous conditions. Since that first survey in May (through August), the pattern has changed a lot, and there is much less teleworking. But some occupations are still staying home at pretty high rates, including college teachers, programmers, lawyers, and management analysts.

There is a sharp distinction between high- and low-telework occupations. It’s not quite a map of status and income, but it’s not not that, either. As in all things, apparently, the pandemic has been a seismic inequality event. Everything has changed, but very differently for different groups of people. More and different inequalities.

Here is the heatmap, which I originally shared on Twitter.

Materials

I can’t share the CPS data I got from IPUMS, but you can get it yourself with a free account. I shared the Stata code I used to manipulate the data, and the R code I used to make the figures, on the Open Science Framework, here: https://osf.io/2k86a/. My R skills are very limited so I just use it to make the figures, but if you are at a functioning beginning level the code might help.

Sociologists: Don’t embargo your dissertation

Your work is important. Don’t hide it. (PNC video)

This post is about the practice of putting your dissertation under an embargo, which means your university library, and probably its agent, ProQuest, don’t let people read it for a certain amount of time, sometimes only a few months, sometimes many years. At my school, the University of Maryland, the graduate school is implementing a new policy that allows two-year embargoes without special permission (down from six years), and longer embargoes only with permission of the advisor and the dean.

Are you in this to advance knowledge? If so, don’t embargo your dissertation. By definition, a dissertation is a contribution to knowledge. By definition, keeping people from reading it stops that from occurring.

Many PhD graduates embargo their dissertations because it feels like the safer thing to do, because they’re vaguely worried about sharing their work, either because it’s so good someone will steal it, or it’s so bad it will embarrass them — or, weirdly, both. Many people don’t seriously think about it, don’t read up on the question, don’t discuss it with knowledgeable mentors (which your PhD advisor is very likely not, at least when it comes to this question). Lots of good people make this mistake, and that’s a shame. I’m writing this post so that, if you see it before you face this choice, there’s a chance my nagging voice will get stuck in your head.

Some graduate students think they’re being exploited and someone is going to make money off their work. Probably not. (You may have been exploited as a graduate student, and you might have good reasons for disliking your university, but this isn’t about making your university happy.) Maybe your dissertation will lead to an important book that lots of people will read — that is wonderful, and I hope it does. Of course, that’s a very small minority of dissertations, even among really good ones that make important contributions to knowledge. That’s just not in the cards in the vast majority of cases. But unless you already have a contract and a publisher telling you that without an embargo the deal is off — a situation that is vanishingly rare if it occurs at all, at least in sociology — making your dissertation publicly available will not hurt (and will probably help) your chances of accomplishing that goal. And if you’re going to publish articles based on your dissertation, no reputable journal will turn them away because they have overlapping content with your dissertation.

Some graduate students are afraid they will get “scooped” or their ideas will be “stolen.” This is profoundly misguided. You are doing the work so that people will read it. People are going to do what they do. You might be taking a small risk to your personal interest by making your work public, but consider it against the benefit of people reading it (which is, after all, the reason you should have written it). This is your finished work. It’s done. By definition it can’t be scooped. It can be plagiarized, like anything else. Would it be awkward or disappointing if someone published something similar that made similar contributions? Maybe. Will that substantially harm your career or personal interests? Very unlikely.* If you had a good idea, it will probably lead to more. Your ideas and your efforts in the dissertation are on the record now. Be proud of them, take credit for them, encourage people to engage with them, and hope that they will be inspired to do work that follows your lead. If your dissertation is good, it’s worth the risk — because you want people to read it. If your dissertation is bad, there is no risk anyway.

Will making your dissertation public hurt your chances of publishing a book? Almost certainly not. As an editor at Harvard University Press wrote:

“Generally speaking, when we at HUP take on a young scholar’s first book, whether in history or other disciplines, we expect that the final product will be so broadened, deepened, reconsidered, and restructured that the availability of the dissertation is irrelevant.”

And they quoted an assistant editor who went further: making your dissertation available improves your chances of getting a book contract:

“I’m always looking out for exciting new scholarship that might make for a good book, whether in formally published journal articles and conference programs, or in the conversation on Twitter and in the history blogosphere, or in conversations with scholars I meet. And so, to whatever extent open access to a dissertation increases the odds of its ideas being read and discussed more widely, I tend to think it increases the odds of my hearing about them.”

Or, as the editorial director at Columbia University Press, Eric Schwartz wrote in a tweet about sharing dissertations: “No problem. Book and dissertation are for different audiences.”

Of course there may be exceptions. If you have an editor on the hook who insists on an embargo, consider the pros and cons. If you have only a vague hope of publishing it down the road, don’t bother.

Do you want to win awards so everyone is talking about your dissertation? Don’t embargo it. Thanks to a 2015 change in policy at the American Sociological Association:

“To be eligible for the ASA Dissertation Award, nominees’ dissertations must be publicly available in Dissertation Abstracts International or a comparable outlet. Dissertations that are not available in this fashion will not be considered for the award.”

There are real, important principles at stake. Hate on your universities all you want, but some of their lofty rhetoric is true and good — and we should be holding them to it, not scoffing at it. Many universities, like the University of California system, have policies based on such high-minded statements as this:

“The University of California is committed to disseminating research and scholarship conducted at the University as widely as possible…. The University affirms the long-standing tradition that theses and dissertations, which represent significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the scholarly record, should be shared with scholars in all disciplines and the general public.”

Embargoing the work for years absolutely violates the spirit of such a principled policy, even if they do allow an embargo. Making your work accessible years later is clearly depriving the public of “significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the scholarly record” for the most important period in the life of the work — the years right after it’s done.

Here’s the statement from the University of Chicago:

“The public sharing of original dissertation research is a principle to which the University is deeply committed, and dissertations should be made available to the scholarly community at the University of Chicago and elsewhere in a timely manner. If dissertation authors are concerned that making their research publicly available might endanger research subjects or themselves, jeopardize a pending patent, complicate publication of a revised dissertation, or otherwise be unadvisable, they may, in consultation with faculty in their field (and as appropriate, research collaborators), restrict access to their dissertation for a limited period of time.”

Some people might skim through this policy and say, “Oh, cool, they allow an embargo,” and just check the box requesting it. But that’s making a powerful statement against the important principle articulated in this policy. If you don’t have a really good reason to embargo your dissertation — and you almost certainly don’t — the public interest demands that you make it public. Take the value of your work seriously. Not it’s commercial value, it’s actual value — which is to people who want to read it.

There is also an important accountability principle at stake. Should PhDs be awarded in secret, with no accountability beyond the committee room walls, until years later? For those of us on the faculty, how are we to evaluate programs and their candidates if we can’t scrutinize their most important works? How can we claim to be reputable programs if we shroud our work behind embargoes. Without at least this bottom-line transparency, there can be little accountability.

I write this post out of a certain sense of shame. I’m the director of graduate studies in our department, and I haven’t made it a priority to talk to students about this, because I didn’t know it was happening. When I looked at the dissertations from our department, which are archived in the Digital Repository at the University of Maryland (or, if they are embargoed, merely listed), I saw that among the last 19 dissertations, 12 were currently embargoed. The seven that were made public have been downloaded 1,200 times.

If you want to embargo your dissertation, or if someone is telling you that you should, the burden is on you (or them) to prove that the real benefits of the embargo — not just for you, but for the contribution to knowledge that your work represents — are greater than the harm of denying readers access to your research. The default must be to share our dissertations, with rare exceptions only when real (not imagined or rumored) circumstances demand that the public interest in access to knowledge be sacrificed.


* My dissertation, completed in 1999, although excellent, was not especially original. My major contributions were updating research on a longstanding theory to (a) use more recent data, (b) include women, and (c) use hierarchical linear models. My dissertation was titled, “Black Population Size and the Structure of United States Labor Market Inequality.” In 1997, as I was hard at work, and had a chapter under review at Social Forces (which I had already presented at two conferences), an article appeared (in Social Forces!) titled, “Black Population Concentration and Black-White Inequality: Expanding the Consideration of Place and Space Effects.” The authors used (a) the new data I was using, they (b) included women, and their (c) models were fancier than mine. I was crushed. And then, with my advisor’s help, I got over it. My article (with a citation to theirs added) got published the next year anyway, titled, “Black Concentration Effects on Black-White and Gender Inequality: Multilevel Analysis for U.S. Metropolitan Areas.” People read both articles. And then I went on to do a bunch more work in that area, with great collaborators, building up a body of research that drew from my dissertation but went much further in terms of theory, methods, and data. My article got cited plenty, partly because it was part of a group of articles that traveled together. I was “scooped,” but they didn’t get their ideas from sneaking a look at my brilliant work in progress, they were logical next steps in a 40-year trajectory of research on an established set of questions. Their publication strengthened the field in which I was working. (In fact, if they had stolen my ideas their paper would have been worse for them, and less damaging to me.)

Comment on pandemic family plans

After reviewing a paper for JAMA Network Open I was invited to write a comment about it. The paper is here, reporting a large drop in the percentage of mothers who are planning or thinking about having another child in a sample from New York City in mid-2020. After summarizing the results, I wrote this:


Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the US was in a period of declining fertility following the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession—a decline that was linked to economic precarity and hardship [2]. Then, in 2020, the total number of US births decreased 3.8%, which was the largest annual decline on a percentage basis since the early 1970s. The decreases were steeper at the end of the year, −6% in November and −8% in December, compared with 2019 [3]. In some large states with public monthly reports (California, Florida, and Ohio), it appears that January and February 2021 had fewer births still, with some recovery in the months that followed [4]. This timing suggests a direct association with the onset of the pandemic and closures that began in the spring of 2020. The evidence presented by Kahn and colleagues [1] supports this interpretation and suggests that when people faced the uncertainty and hardships associated with the pandemic, one common response was to pull back from plans to add children to their families. Future research will examine whether family decision-making in more advantaged families was similarly affected.

The current evidence concerns shifts in pregnancy planning. However, in the US, a substantial portion of births results from unintended or mistimed pregnancies, and these are concentrated among disadvantaged women [5]. The inability to predict, much less control, the trajectory of their lives leads many women to postpone the lifelong commitments implied by intentional births, but also makes unintentional pregnancy more likely. How the pandemic may have affected such births is not yet known. If mobility restrictions, unemployment, illness, care work burdens, and social distancing all reduced social interaction, coupled with increased motivation to prevent pregnancy, we may suspect unintended births will have declined as well.

The impacts of the pandemic within and between families points to the complex interrelationships among family structure, health disparities, and social inequality in the US [6]. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an inequality-exacerbating event on a large scale, widening existing health disparities, especially along the lines of socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. Excess mortality among Black and Hispanic populations in 2020, directly and indirectly related to the pandemic, far outstripped that seen among non-Hispanic White populations and contributed to the decrease in overall US life expectancy that exceeded that seen in peer countries [7]. In light of disparate impacts of COVID-19 itself and the social and economic fallout of the pandemic, research should concentrate on widening inequalities in fertility and family well-being, and their relationship to health disparities.

Published: September 15, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24399

Open Access: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the CC-BY License. © 2021 Cohen PN. JAMA Network Open.

Corresponding Author: Philip N. Cohen, PhD, Maryland Population Research Center, Department of Sociology, University of Maryland, Parren J. Mitchell Art Sociology Building, College Park, MD 20742 (pnc@umd.edu).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

References

  1. Kahn  LG, Trasande  L, Liu  M, Mehta-Lee  SS, Brubaker  SG, Jacobson  MH.  Factors associated with changes in pregnancy intention among women who were mothers of young children in New York City following the COVID-19 outbreak.   JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(9):e2124273. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.24273
  2. Seltzer  N.  Beyond the great recession: labor market polarization and ongoing fertility decline in the United States.   Demography. 2019;56(4):1463-1493. doi:10.1007/s13524-019-00790-6
  3. National Center for Health Statistics. Provisional estimates for selected maternal and infant outcomes by month, 2018-2020. Accessed July 1, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/technical-notes-outcomes.htm
  4. Cohen  PN.  Baby bust: falling fertility in US counties is associated with COVID-19 prevalence and mobility reductions.   SocArXiv, March 17, 2021. doi:10.31235/osf.io/qwxz3
  5. Hartnett  CS, Gemmill  A.  Recent trends in US childbearing intentions.   Demography. 2020;57(6):2035-2045. doi:10.1007/s13524-020-00929-w
  6. Thomeer  MB, Yahirun  J, Colón-López  A.  How families matter for health inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic.   J Fam Theory Rev. 2020;12(4):448-463. doi:10.1111/jftr.12398
  7. Woolf  SH, Masters  RK, Aron  LY.  Effect of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020 on life expectancy across populations in the USA and other high income countries: simulations of provisional mortality data.   BMJ. 2021;373(n1343):n1343. doi:10.1136/bmj.n1343

Genetics is the truther conspiracy of racial inequality

After reading Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s New Yorker profile of Paige Harden (discussing her new book, The Genetic Lottery), but before reading her book, I went back and re-read the piece Harden wrote with Eric Turkheimer and Richard Nisbett in Vox about Charles Murray’s appearance on Sam Harris’s podcast, and listened to her follow-up conversation with Harris about it (subscription required, but they give it to you free if you ask).

In the conversation between Harris and Harden, something Harris said made me think that the genetic explanation for race differences in what they’re calling “outcomes,” such as educational attainment, intelligence, or other phenotypic “complex behavior traits” is like a truther conspiracy theory for people like Harris and Charles Murray. Any time they think they have poked a hole in the “racism explains everything” worldview, they believe it’s evidence for genetics.

Harden takes positions that are at odds with the viewpoint of many sociologists. She believes intelligence is measurable, and heritable (people get it from their parents), and has important causal effects on people’s lives. But she doesn’t believe that explains why Whites score higher than some other groups on IQ tests. In the interview, Harden had patiently explained that in the absence of evidence of group differences in genetics — which there is not — you can’t assume the direction of as-yet undiscovered genetic differences, even when you have group differences in phenotypes and evidence of heritability at the individual level. She said:

“It’s a really, really, really basic statistical point, which is that if you know the direction of the association within a group, you don’t know anything about whether that plays out between groups, not even in the sign of that direction…. It could be that Africans are at a genetic advantage for cognitive ability that’s been swamped by environmental risks and adversity. … That’s labeled the ecological fallacy, that’s like a basic statistical point. … We have no information, no default, about what is the relationship between differences in genetic ancestry and the causes of these cognition differences that we see on average, between groups. And in the absence of any data, and really good data, the only priors we have are informed by what? So that’s why I think the prior that there is a genetic difference, and what is more that it works in this particular direction, is not informed by the science.”

Murray and Harris can’t see this, or refuse to. They keep “defaulting” to the assumption that because traits like intelligence are somewhat heritable at the individual level, and there are group differences in the observed traits (“outcomes”) — therefore group differences are at least partly the result of genetics. It’s just a matter of time till we find out. Harris responds:

“My default assumption here … for the hundred things we care about in a person, given how much we are learning about the role that genes play in making us who we are, physically, and psychologically … we will find that genes are involved for virtually everything, to some degree. And in many cases it will be the difference that really makes most of the difference, and this is true for individuals, and we will find it true for groups.”

When he says it’s an assumption, and he won’t change it regardless of the lack of evidence, there’s no point in arguing. He’s not talking about science. I would make stronger arguments against the enterprise itself — the idea of trying to find genetic group differences to explain inequality between groups — than she did in the interview, but in any event Harden is clear that Murray and Harris are wrong on this point, as many others have explained as well. (Of course, the existence of meaningful genetic differences between ancestral populations in complex behavioral traits like intelligence is itself purely speculative. Variations evolve at random and might end up sticking if they provide a survival advantage, like lack of skin pigmentation, but it’s not likely humanity was divided up into different populations where some groups were selected for intelligence and others weren’t — unlike skin pigmentation, intelligence is handy for everyone.) Anyway, that’s all backstory to the quote below. Harris keeps saying his real concern is with intellectual honesty and the perils of cancel culture. And he says this:

“The real question is what is the cause of all these disparities. The real problem politically, at the moment, is when you’re talking about White-Black differences in American society, differences in outcome, differences in, you know, inner-city crime, differences in wealth inequality, all of it – anything that people could care about – the only acceptable answer in many quarters, to account for these differences, is White racism, or systemic racism, right, institutional racism. Some holdover effect from slavery and Jim Crow. And a failure to see it that way, just reflexively, is synonymous with being a racist, or being unaware of the depth of racism. White fragility – we’re having this conversation at the moment when the best selling book in the country is White Fragility, right. So to be doubtful that White racism accounts for all of these disparities – you know, White racism, again, in the year 2020, not to be in any doubt about the ugly history of racism in American, to be in doubt about whether racism explains the number of shootings we’re going to see in Chicago this weekend – and the fact that I can predict with something like 100 percent certainty that most of those shootings will be Black-on-Black crime, right, is it White racism that explains that? To have doubt about that will cast you as a malevolent imbecile in many, many quarters, now, and you risk reputational destruction. And the only safe space is to say, ‘Of course it’s White racism, that’s the problem we gotta solve.’ And that is such a stultifying and frankly dishonest place to be, intellectually, at the moment, and it’s closing down conversation on dozens of important topics, and it puts us in a position, insofar as we’re fighting from this trench, right, we’re all just hunkered down against all possible future insights, in this spot, it is deeply unstable, because we will find out things – differences among groups, again now speaking widely about all human difference, among all groups – and differences among individuals, that are simply not amenable to a politically correct analysis, and, again, there’s this inconvenient fact that we have these differences between Asians and Whites, right, so if White racism accounts for every possible difference between Whites and Blacks in society, is there a pro-Asian racism that’s account for the fact that Whites are performing so badly on IQ tests? That’s hard to argue for.”

You have to love how he goes from “dozens” of questions, and “all human difference, among all groups” straight to violence and IQ. But the whole rant is the tell that it’s a truther-style conspiracy theory. When a 9/11 truther finds any discrepancy or incomplete element in the official explanation for the 9/11 attacks — like something about the melting point of steel, or a missing document or garbled radio transmission — they assume it’s evidence the CIA did it. See! How can you believe them?! This is what I’m telling you! In fact, any complex scientific story will have potential discrepancies and inadequacies yet to be explained (“science is not designed for proving absolute negatives”). But those things are not evidence for a particular different theory — unless they really are. Once they plant the idea of their counternarrative, any weakness in the accepted story becomes evidence for their side. So, if “Asians” do better on IQ tests than Whites do, and if Black people kill each other in Chicago, facts that supposedly undermine the “White racism causes everything” story, it’s basically evidence that Blacks are genetically inferior — probably or maybe, blah, blah, blah racism — and you just can’t admit it.

Just in case you were wondering whether people who make this kind of assumption are thinking scientifically, they’re not. That’s a thought I had after some reading and listening. I think I’ll read her book.

Demographic facts all students should know right now

Here’s the 2021 update of a series I started in 2013. A few pandemic-specific facts below.

If anyone tells you that “facts are useless in an emergency,” give them a bad grade. Knowing basic demographic facts lets us run a quick temperature check on the pot we’re slowly boiling in — which we need to survive. The idea is to get your radar tuned to identify falsehoods as efficiently as possible, to prevent them spreading and contaminating reality. Although I grew up on “facts are lazy and facts are late,” I actually still believe in this mission, I just shake my head slowly while I ramble on about it (and tell the same stories over and over).

This year, in pursuit of this mission, I created the Demographic Fact A Day Twitter account, which started tweeting one fact per day at the start of 2021. Some of these are more advanced, some very simple. Here’s a figure from that account, for a taste:

Image

Everyone likes a number that appears to support their perspective. But that’s no way to run (or change) a society. The trick is to know the facts before you create or evaluate an argument, and for that you need some foundational demographic knowledge. This list of facts you should know is just a prompt to get started in that direction.

The list below are demographic facts you need just to get through the day without being grossly misled or misinformed — or, in the case of journalists or teachers or social scientists, not to allow your audience to be grossly misled or misinformed. Not trivia that makes a point or statistics that are shocking, but the non-sensational information you need to make sense of those things when other people use them. And it’s really a ballpark requirement (when I test the undergraduates, I give them credit if they are within 20% of the US population — that’s anywhere between 266 million and 400 million!).

This is only a few dozen facts, not exhaustive but they belong on any top-100 list. This year, many of the most important facts are about the pandemic, but they’re not included here — these are some of what you need to understand the upheavals of the day. Feel free to add additional facts in the comments (as per policy, first-time commenters are moderated).

The numbers are rounded to reasonable units for easy memorization. All refer to the US unless otherwise noted. Most of the links will take you to the latest data:

NumberSource
World Population7.8 billion1
U.S. Population333 million1
Children under 18 as share of pop.22%2
Adults 65+ as share of pop.17%2
Official unemployment rate (July 2021)5%3
Unemployment rate range, 1970-20183.9% – 15%3
Labor force participation rate, age 16+62%9
Labor force participation rate range, 1970-201760% – 67%9
Non-Hispanic Whites as share of pop.60%2
Blacks as share of pop.13%2
Hispanics as share of pop.19%2
Asians / Pacific Islanders as share of pop.6%2
American Indians as share of pop.1%2
Immigrants as share of pop14%2
Adults age 25+ with BA or higher32%2
Median household income$62,8002
Total poverty rate11%8*
Child poverty rate14%8*
Poverty rate age 65+9%8*
Most populous country, China1.4 billion5
2nd most populous country, India1.3 billion5
3rd most populous country, USA (CIA estimate)335 million5
4th most populous country, Indonesia275 million5
5th most populous country, Pakistan238 million5
U.S. male life expectancy at birth756
U.S. female life expectancy at birth806
Life expectancy range across countries53 – 877
World total fertility rate2.410
U.S. total fertility rate1.710
Total fertility rate range across countries0.9 – 6.810

* These are pre-pandemic poverty rates.

Sources

1. U.S. Census Bureau Population Clock

2. U.S. Census Bureau quick facts

3. Bureau of Labor Statistics

5. CIA World Factbook

6. National Center for Health Statistics

7. CIA World Factbook

8. U.S. Census Bureau poverty tables

9. Bureau of Labor Statistics

10. World Bank


Alexa devaluation, cutting room floor edition

Joe Pinsker at the Atlantic has written, “Amazon Ruined the Name Alexa,” that develops the story of the name, which I started tracking with a pick drop in 2017, writing: “You have to feel for people who named their daughters Alexa, and the Alexas themselves, before Amazon sullied their names. Did they not think of the consequences for these people? Another bad year for Alexa. After a 21.3% drop in 2016, another 19.5% last year.”

Pinsker concludes:

Amazon did not exactly ruin the life of every Alexa, but the consequences of its decision seven years ago are far-reaching—roughly 127,000 American baby girls were named Alexa in the past 50 years, and more than 75,000 of them are younger than 18. Amazon didn’t take their perfectly good name out of malice, but regardless, it’s not giving it back.

From the peak year of 2015, when there were 6,050 Alexas born in the US, the number fell 79% to 1272 in 2020, the biggest drop among names with at least 1000 girls born in 2015. Here’s that list:

Pinsker got Amazon on the record not commenting on the problem they created for actual humans named Alexa, who he reports are being bullied in school — they are not only named after a robot, but a subservient female one, so no surprise. Amazon said only, “Bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Cutting room floor

I am only quoted in the story saying, “We don’t usually think about the individuals who are already born when this happens, but the impact on their lives is real as well.” No complaint about that, of course. But since my interview with Pinsker was over email, I can share my other nuggets of insight here, with his questions:

I saw that you first blogged about this in 2018 (when you were remarking on the 2017 name data). Did you just happen to stumble upon Alexa’s declining popularity yourself, or did someone else point it out to you?

I wrote a program that identifies that names with biggest changes, and Alexa jumped out. One interesting thing about naming patterns is that dramatic changes are quite rare. Names rise and fall over time, but they rarely show giant leaps or collapse as dramatically as Alexa did after 2015.

When you look at what has happened to the name Alexa since Amazon’s Alexa was released in late 2014, how much of the name’s declining popularity do you attribute to Amazon? (Is it common for names to plummet in popularity as quickly as Alexa has since 2014?)

The Social Security national name data is a mile wide and an inch deep. We have a tremendous amount of name data, but it is all just counts of babies born — we have no direct information about who is using what names, or why. So any attribution of causal processes is speculative unless we do other research. That said, because dramatic changes are so rare, it’s usually pretty easy to explain them. For example, some classic 1970s hits apparently sparked name trends: Brandy (Looking Glass, 1972), Maggie (Rod Stewart, 1971), and of course Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac, 1975). I defy you to find someone named Rhiannon, born in the US, who was born before 1975. We can also observe dramatic changes even among uncommon names, such as a doubling of girls named Malia in 2009 (the Obamas’ daughter’s name).

At one point, you mentioned on your blog that Hillary was another name that became less popular after becoming culturally ubiquitous. Are there any other examples you’re aware of, where a name’s cultural ubiquity tanks its popularity?

On the other hand, there are disaster stories, like Alexa. Hillary was rising in popularity before 1992, and then tanked. Monica declined dramatically after 1998 (after the Clinton sex scandal). Ellen became much less common suddenly the year after Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay in 1997. And Forrest, which had been on the rise before 1994, plummeted after Forrest Gump came out and virtually disappeared.

We don’t usually think about the individuals who are already born when this happens, but the impacts on their lives is real as well. The name trends tell us something about the social value of a name (and unlike other commodities, in the US at least there is no limit to the number of people who can have a name). People who were named Adolph before Hitler, Forrest before Forrest Gump, or Alexa before Amazon live with the experience of a devalued name. Many of them end up changing their names or using nicknames — or just getting used to people making jokes about their name every time they meet someone new, have attendance called, or go to the department of motor vehicles.

If I’m reading the SSA data correctly, there were 1,272 Alexas born last year in the U.S. I know this is speculative, but would you guess that most of these parents aren’t aware of the name of Amazon’s device? Or is it that they’re aware, and just don’t care?

Some don’t know, some don’t care, some probably think it’s cool. For some it may be a family name. I am fascinated to see that Alexis and Alexia have also seen five-year declines of more than 60% in name frequency. I wonder if that is because of concern over Alexa devices mishearing those names — certainly a reasonable concern — or maybe just association with the product making those names seem derivative or tacky. It’s hard to say.


See all the posts about names under the tag.

Pew response and attempted clarification

First, a response from Pew, then a partial data clarification on generations. In response to my Washington Post Op-Ed on generations, Generation labels mean nothing. It’s time to retire them, Kim Parker, the director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center, published a letter that read:

Philip N. Cohen criticized the use of generation labels. Generations are one of many analytical lenses researchers use to understand societal change and differences across groups. While there are limitations to generational analysis, it can be a useful tool for understanding demographic trends and shifting public attitudes. For example, a generational look at public opinion on a wide range of social and political issues shows that cohort differences have widened over time on some issues, which could have important implications for the future of American politics.

In addition, looking at how a new generation of young adults experiences key milestones such as educational attainment, marriage or homeownership, compared with previous generations in their youth, can lend important insights into changes in American society.

To be sure, these labels can be misused and lead to stereotyping, and it’s important to stress and highlight diversity within generations. At Pew Research Center, we consistently endeavor to refine and improve our research methods. Therefore, we are having ongoing conversations around the best way to approach generational research. We look forward to engaging with Mr. Cohen and other scholars as we continue to explore this complex and important issue.

Kim Parker, Washington

I was happy to see this, and look forward to what they come up with. I am also glad to see that there has been no substantial defense of the current “generations” research regime. Some people on social media said they kind of like the categories, but no researcher has said they make sense, or pointed to any research justifying the current categories. With regard to her point that generations research is useful, that was in our open letter, and in my op-ed. Cohorts (and, if you want to call a bunch of a cohorts a generation, generations) matter a lot, and should be studied. They just shouldn’t be used with imposed fixed categories regardless of the data involved, and given names with stereotyped qualities that are presumed to extend across spheres of social life.

Several people have asked me for suggestions. My basic suggestion is to do like you learned in social science class, and use categories that make sense for a good reason. If you have no reason to use a set of categories, don’t use them. Instead, use an empty measure of time, like years or decades, as a first pass, and look at the data. As I argued here, there is not likely to be a set of birth years that cohere across time and social space into meaningful generational identities.

Data question

In the Op-Ed, I wrote this: “Generation labels, although widely adopted by the public, have no basis in social reality. In fact, in one of Pew’s own surveys, most people did not identify the correct generation for themselves — even when they were shown a list of options.” The link was to this 2015 report titled, “Most Millennials Resist the ‘Millennial’ Label” (which of course confirms a stereotype about this supposed generation). I was looking in particular at this graphic, which I have shown often:

It doesn’t exactly show what portion of people “correctly” identify their category, but I eyeballed it and decided that if only 18% of Silents and 40% of Millennials were right, there was no way Gen X and Boomers were bringing the average over 50%. Also, people could choose multiple labels, so those “correct” numbers was presumably inflated to some degree by double-clickers. Anyway, the figure doesn’t exactly answer the question.

The data for that figure come from Pew’s American Trends Panel Wave 10, from 2015. The cool thing is you can download the data here. So I figured I could do a little analysis of who “correctly” identifies their category. Unfortunately, the microdata file they share doesn’t include exact age, just age in four categories that don’t line up with the generations — so you can’t replicate their analysis.

However, they do provide a little more detail in the topline report, here, including reporting the percentage of people in each “generation” who identified with each category. Using those numbers, I figure that 57% selected the correct category, 26% selected an incorrect category, 9% selected “other” (unspecified in the report), and 8% are unaccounted for. So, keeping in mind that people can be in more than one of these groups, I can’t say how many were completely “correct,” but I can say that (according to the report, not the data, which I can’t analyze for this) 57% at least selected the category that matched their birth year, possibly in combination with other categories.

The survey also asked people “how well would you say they term [generation you chose] applies to you?” If you combine “very well” and “fairly well,” you learn, for example, that actual “Silents” are more likely to say “Greatest Generation” applies well to them (32%) than say “Silent” does (14%). Anyway, if I did this right, based on the total sample, 46% of people both “correctly” identified their generation title, and said the term describes them “well.” I honestly don’t know what to make of this, but thought I’d share it, since it could be read as me misstating the case in the Op-Ed.

Chasing Life podcast on making babies, or not

CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta has a podcast called Chasing Life about coming out of the pandemic. Associate producer Grace Walker interviewed me for an episode titled, “Let’s Talk About Making Babies (Or Deciding Not To).” In it reporter Chloe Melas starts with the story of a Black couple (two women, one of them trans) seeking to have children. At about minute 21, she turns to the fertility decline in the US. The transcript of that part is below. This episode would be good for teaching.


Chloe Melas: But we can’t forget – not everyone wants to have children. And that’s OK. According to the CDC, the number of births in the United States fell by 4% last year – the largest annual decline since 1973. Given the global pandemic, for demographers like Philip Cohen of the University of Maryland, this isn’t too surprising.

Philip Cohen: What we’ve learned in the last century or so is that when there are crises birth rates go down. It’s partly deliberate, that is, people decide to hold off on having children, or decide against having children, because they’re unsure about the future, they’re unsure they’ll be able to care for them, they think they might lose their job, they think their mother might lose her job – all the things that go into the calculations of when and whether to have children.

CM: 2020 is not an outlier. Cohen says birthrates have been on a downward trend for quite a while.

PNC: We were sort of focusing on issues like work-family balance, childcare, healthcare, housing, the expenses of raising children, and the difficulty of raising children, which had been putting pressure on people to reduce their number of children. That’s the main reason. At the same time, when people have more opportunities to do other things in their lives, they’re also inclined to have fewer children, or delay having children. So especially for women, when opportunities improve, the number of children they have tends to go down, because on average they’re more likely to choose something else.

CM: Hispanic women in particular are seeing some of the largest declines. From 2007 to 2017 birth rates fell by 31%. Experts attribute this drop to more Hispanic women joining the workforce, and waiting longer to start families than previous generations. Overall, the data doesn’t lie. Fewer people are having kids. That could lead to smaller kindergarten classrooms, as well as larger demands on Social Security, given the aging population. But Cohen and others think there could be positives, too. For example, fewer people means less of an environmental impact on the planet. So it’s really a glass half empty, glass half full kind of situation. The point is, I think this pandemic has really made many of us reflect on what we want our future to look like, including our future families. Some have been inspired to freeze their eggs, some to seek out help for infertility, and some have decided against having kids while others have been inspired to do so.