On Labor Day, A Look At “Work”

Most of us will spend decades, and countless thousands of hours, at our jobs — but how often do we think about “work” and how it is changing?  On this Labor Day, it’s worth taking a moment to do so.

In the United States, the concept of “work” and the types of jobs that constitute “work” have changed dramatically over the past 150 years, reflecting changes in the country as a whole.  As this interactive chart of census data shows, farmers and farm laborers constituted more than 50 percent of the jobs held by men in 1850; by 2000, farmers and farm laborers amounted to less than 1 percent of the working male population.  Other jobs that were relatively common in 1850 — like blacksmith, which was 1.79% of the male job market in 1850 — have largely vanished, and new jobs like bartender and insurance agent have taken their places.

The shifts in the jobs have reflected, and in some instances caused, shifts in the culture of America.  Farmers in 1850 worked with family members on land they owned and their work days were self-directed; they lived in rural areas and had little daily interaction with people outside of their village.  Modern white-collar employees typically work in highly structured environments, doing what a complex hierarchy of managers tell them to do, in large cities and buildings where they may interact with hundreds of people each working day.  The demands of the jobs are different — farmers needed to know when to plant and when to harvest, while office workers need to know how to create a decent spreadsheet — and the stresses are different, too.  Who is to say whether preparing an important presentation for a corporate vice president is any more stressful than rising at 4 a.m. to deliver a calf whose successful birth might be crucial to eking out a profit for the year?

The census record of non-household work by women is even more interesting, because it not only shows the ebb and flow of jobs but also the impact of social change and technological change.  At one time household workers (cooks and maids), farm laborers, and dressmakers made up the preponderance of outside-the-home working women, then — as more women entered the workforce — secretaries, clerical workers, and cashiers came to the forefront.  And check out the “manager/owner” category for women, which has gone from less than 1 percent of women in 1970 to more than 3.3 percent in 2000.  Our female friends and family members who own their own businesses and call the shots are part of a significant trend.

The “secretary” job category is particularly worth noting.  The position first shows up in census data in 1900, where about .3% percent of women reported holding that job, and the job category grew to more than 5.3 percent of women by 1970, as white-collar jobs in America exploded.  That number then fell to about 2.9 percent by 2000, and it has likely fallen farther since then.  Why?  It’s not because secretarial work is any less important, but because more and more of that work is now being done by the white collar workers that secretaries used to assist.  As young people who are used to working on personal computers and doing their own keyboarding enter the workforce, there is less need for secretaries who can take shorthand and then type 100 words a minute, without error, on their typewriters for bosses who had, at best, “hunt and peck” proficiency.

How should people prepare for the constantly shifting job market?  We might not be able to predict what types of jobs will be available as social and technological changes occur, but we can predict the characteristics that will make employees successful — because those haven’t changed at all.  Whether you are a blacksmith or an IT specialist, hard work, timeliness, and attention to the quality of your output will always be keys to success.

Cruising The Dream Cruise

-5This weekend was the Woodward Dream Cruise in Detroit, when thousands of the cars Detroit has produced over the years cruise up and down Woodward Avenue.  It’s a serious dip into the world of chrome and leather, mag wheels and shiny grilles, candy-colored paint and engines with horsepower to spare.  Russell went, had a great time, and sent along the photo above.

Cars are interesting devices.  At bottom, they’re just a transportation mechanism, but they also can become so much more.  Who doesn’t remember the first car that they truly loved?  Mine was a bright red Mustang Ghia, circa 1974, with a fake pebbled leather top that was bright white, and bucket seats.  I thought I was the King of the Road in that car.

Back To The Ice Age

20140807-071831-26311110.jpgOur cottage at Rockywold-Deephaven Family Camp — like every other cottage here — lacks a refrigerator.

Instead of the large, humming, ice-making and food-chilling machine found in all of our kitchens, we have an old-fashioned, noiseless icebox. It’s a green wooden piece of furniture with a snug, metal-lined compartment where blocks of ice are placed. The ice is used strictly for cooling, not consumption. The cold radiating from the ice and metal keeps the other contents of the icebox, like Kish’s bottle of diet root beer, chilled.

The ice is made with lake water and comes from the Deephaven Ice House. Every morning male staffers use huge metal tongs to haul blocks of ice out of the ice house and put it in green wheelbarrows, then they hustle from cottage to cottage to replenish the ice in each icebox. It looks like quite a workout. Our iceman who cometh is named Peter, a pleasant young man from the Czech Republic who has worked at the camp for three summers and is looking forward to a fourth next year.

The dining room at Rockywold-Deephaven provides three meals a day, so you really don’t need a big, bulky refrigerator clogging up your cottage space or making noise that interferes with enjoyment of the morning solitude — and it’s kind of nice to live in an appliance-free zone for a while. It’s one of the distinctive touches of this remarkable and very enjoyable place.

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The Modern Approach To Supporting Artists

Richard has written a lot of really good stories for the Chicago Tribune this summer, and this recent piece is no exception:  it’s a story about how artists, writers, and musicians are using social media sites, like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, that allow them to raise money to complete and publish their works — and also how such sites impose certain burdens on the exercise of the creative spirit that didn’t exist before.

Of course, being parents of an artist, this kind of story is of particular interest to us.

There are many talented artists, authors, and musicians out there, and as a result being noticed, and then appreciated, can be a real challenge.  In the old days, wealthy patrons would “discover” and support artists by funding their creations; many of the masterpieces of days gone by were commissioned by Popes, or nobility, or wealthy guilds.  Alas, there aren’t enough such benefactors to go around these days.  Social media sites allow artists to reach beyond the galleries or record labels to reach popular audiences that may enjoy their pieces and be willing to commit funds to allow artistic projects to be completed.

It may not be as easy as being supported by one of the Medicis, and the websites may take a cut of the proceeds — but if they allow art to be produced that wouldn’t be produced otherwise, they seem like a good thing to me.

Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact. 

IMG_2446Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.   

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

The Relentless March Of Cell Phone Progress

If you want to have a good idea of the relentless march of technology — actually, a sprint is probably more accurate than a march — consider the cell phone.

When first introduced in the ’80s, they were heavy and clunky.  Then the miniaturizing wizards got to work, and phones got smaller and smaller as coverage got better and better.  Then the coolness barons entered the game, and the boring cellphones of the past morphed into cool, Star Trek-like communicators that flipped open and made you feel like you were on the cutting edge of a sci-fi life.  Then the app designers brought their skills to bear, and cell phones went from simple communications devices to cameras, games consoles, and repositories of such vast amounts of personal information that the Supreme Court recently deemed a warrantless search of a cell phone legally analogous to a general search of a home.

We tend to move unconsciously with all of these changes, without pausing to think what it used to be like before the apps and the miniaturization and the styling.  That’s why a hilarious piece like this one, about a 2014 cell phone user trying to use 2004’s coolest phone for an entire month, is not only funny but a useful reminder.  Humans are an adaptable species, and nowhere is that more evident than in our immediate willingness to use and learn the latest technology — and then assume it has always been around.