Thursday, March 22, 2007

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Gender and low-wage jobs

Matt Yglesias links to a Washington Post op-ed by NYU political scientist Lawrence Mead on the withdrawal of low-income men from the workforce:

Why are low-skilled men withdrawing from work just when unskilled jobs appear plentiful and immigrants are flooding into the country to take them? One reason might be that the wages these men could earn have fallen, so, the thinking goes, why work for chump change? Yet these men failed to work more even in the 1990s, when wages for low-skilled jobs rose. It's more likely that male work discipline has deteriorated. Poor men want to work and succeed, yet many cannot endure the slights and disappointments that work involves. That's why poor men usually can obtain jobs yet seldom keep them.
Yglesias goes to town with this paragraph:
Frankly, one has to sympathize with this. Presumably NYU political science professors like Mead don't need to put up with the sort of slights experienced by people doing unskilled labor.
I can't shake the feeling that something else is going on here. Yes, low wage jobs can be humiliating and hard work.... but wasn't this also true in the past? Indeed, globally, one of the reasons so many people flock to so-called "sweatshop" jobs is because they still seem like a step up from the back-breaking tasks involved in agricultural labor.

What, then, explains the growing disaffection of male workers in this country? It might be that the composition of low-wage jobs has shifted from tasks that were commonly associated with men to tasks that have historically been associated as women's work. Low-wage jobs in the agricultural and manufactiuring sector involve the use of significant amounts of muscle far removed from the final customer. Low-wage jobs in the service sector often require the employee to wear nametags that say, "Hi! My name is ________!" while being as courteous as possible to the customer. My hunch is that a large swath of low-income men can deal with being dog-tired from moving around heavy things, but can't deal with the petty humiliations required to stay in the good graces of an obnoxious shopper. [So you're saying that women enjoy humiliation more?--ed. No, I'm saying that because many of these low-paying service-sector jobs were traditionally viewed as female, there's some path dependence at work here.]

This is just blog speculaion -- I have no idea if there's any empirical evidence to confirm if this is true. Commenters should feel free to shoot this down.

UPDATE: The Economist's Free Exchange has more on this point.

posted by Dan on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM


Academics and journalists do not seem to understand that illegal aliens are preferable for many employers to US citizens.


1) Illegals do not organize unions.
2) Illegals do not call OSHA about safety problems.
3) Illegals do not file workers compensation claims.
4) Illegals do not call wage-and-hour after being cheated out of overtime.
5) Illegals generally do not file income tax returns (data suggests about 1 of 7), so documment matching cannot be completed, so employers can cheat with impunity.

In urban areas illegals appear to be running citizens, and especially blacks, out of the job market.


posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

Spot on! I worked in fast food my first couple years of college, and loathed every minute. Then I got on at UPS the last couple years, started at 0300 every morning, humping my a$$, and loved every "how may I help you?"

I'll live in an orange crate under a freeway overpass before I work in a service-type job again...

posted by: rondo on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

If that's the case, Dan, then why do you see the strongest shift away from citizens to immigrants, frequently illegal, in jobs like home construction, landscaping, low-skill factory jobs, warehousing, etc.

The different gender preferences you suggest would explain why you don't see low-skill men at Walmart or as hotel bellhops, but I'm not sure that's where the largest shift has been.

First poster is right -- you have to ask whether there is an *employer* preference as well as employee preference here too.

posted by: AnIRProf on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

In addition to the 5 points listed above by save the rustbelt, there is an additional big advantage to hiring illegal immigrant labor for a lot of employers.

6. They hire themselves.

I live in Waco Texas where Hispanic immigrants pretty much own the construction and landscaping labor market. If the construction company that is putting up houses down the street from me needs 10 additional framers tomorrow. And wants to hire illegals. He only needs to turn to a couple of his guys and say that he needs 10 new guys tomorrow and guess what, there are EXACTLY 10 new guys tomorrow at the job site as the word goes out word of mouth and the jobs are doled out through a complex family and social network. If that same construction company actually wants to hire 10 legal construction workers from say the black community that used to do much of this work. They gotta put ads in the local papers, interview people, and worry about whether they'll have work to keep them busy two months later.

posted by: Kent on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

then why do you see the strongest shift away from citizens to immigrants, frequently illegal, in jobs like home construction, landscaping, low-skill factory jobs, warehousing, etc.

Perhaps because those are non-service jobs that don't require interaction with customers, advanced English skills, and the like?

I don't understand the comments that seem to think that they're refuting Dr. Drezner's point by bringing up illegal aliens. Yes, certainly illegals can compete better in non-service jobs than they can in service jobs. That definitely explains part of why illegal immigrant labor seems to be more negative for men than for women. At the same time, it remains interesting to wonder why citizen men are so unwilling to take "women's work" service jobs in response.

save_the_rustbelt's response makes me wonder if she has the same sort of reaction for native Southerners in non union states who have "taken" the rustbelt's jobs as well.

posted by: John Thacker on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

Why are low-skilled men withdrawing from work just when unskilled jobs appear plentiful and immigrants are flooding into the country to take them?

Oh please, I can't believe this guy is even asking. STR is right on, as is Kent.

Here is one other hypothesis -- young men and older teenagers don't develop good work habits because all the 'scut' work is taken by 30 year old immigrants.

And John Thacker -- the difference between the South taking jobs and Mexicans coming here to take jobs is that conceivably I can move to East Kakalacky and take that job in the Toyota plant. Good luck to any Gringo moving to Mexico to work in a plant of any sort!

posted by: Mitchell Young on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

First, withdrawing may be the wrong word, displaced might be better.

By the way, STR is all man.

Non-union workers in the south are legal, that is one huge difference.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

The question I have is whether these are actually low skilled, or merely skilled in areas which are no longer needed and therefore unskilled relative to the work offered. Many jobs have been moving to less and less skilled employment with commensurately low pay. The idea men should follow them just to have a job seems obnoxious.

posted by: Lord on 03.22.07 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

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