Tag Archives: economics

Millennials are Screwed

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I’ve got another big long article in Highline!

Like everything I write, it began as a nitpick. For years it seemed like every time I opened a browser window, all I saw was the story of how millennials like me refused to grow up. We’re entitled, we’re hipsters, we’re living in basements, we MFA’d when we should have STEM’d. If we could just tear ourselves off of Tumblr for 10 minutes, maybe we’d find a job and quit complaining already.

I always knew this was a caricature, but it was only once I started working on this article that I learned the vast, incredible, profound wrongness of the stereotype we’ve been sold about millennials. Young people are not failing in the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy is failing them.

The hardest part of writing a story like this is knowing where to start. One of the first people I interviewed was Emma*, who I met at a homeless shelter in Seattle last spring. She’s 22 years old, trying to get onto the ladder in tech and sleeping in a church annex while she does an unpaid internship. She’s been bouncing in and out of homelessness for two years now—getting a job, starting to climb the ladder and then falling off. It turns out this is a whole Thing, a sub-field of economics called “poverty dynamics.” More than 60 percent of the U.S. population will spend at least one year in the bottom quintile of the income distribution—a percentage that’s been growing since the 1980s.

It was like this for months: Every time I met someone, they led me to a novel way that young people have it harder than their parents. Katie, a midwife who only gets paid when one of her clients goes into labor and is still paying off her occupational license, put me on the trail of domestic outsourcing. Steve, who moved to Detroit to buy a cheap house and now earns $10 an hour “making smoothies for better-off millennials,” opened up the wonderful world of zoning regulations and falling labor mobility.

Last April, when I started on this story, I had no idea I would be looking up 1970s building codes or federal regulations on pension funds or the arcane details of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. But here we are! What I found was, first, that the challenges faced by millennials are larger than I ever expected. Second, these challenges are the result of three huge and deliberate and terrifying paradigm shifts in the way our economy works and how we think about it. They all happened slowly and imperceptibly. But, like the melting of an ice cap (ahem), they are now undeniable.

So this is it, my attempt at understanding and describing and freaking out about all the ways millennials are getting screwed and what we can do about it. It’s long, it’s dark and it’s full of statistics—luckily, there are gorgeous designs to distract you!

UPDATE:
I’ve done a bunch of interviews about the article!

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Filed under Essays, Journalism

Why Journalism is Expensive

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Right, so I have this story in The New Republic about how and why the HIV epidemic was so much more severe in the United States than Western Europe. It’s nothing earth-shattering, just me listing the higher prevalence, incidence and death rates between countries and giving some (pretty speculative) reasons for them. Standard statistical explainer-type stuff.

Except that this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this, and I spent the whole time researching and writing it absolutely stunned at how much work it was, and the bottomless amount of time it sucked out of my life for the last two months.

One thing I always knew, but didn’t like know-know, about journalism is how much time you spend just getting people to talk to you. One of the tropes of these kinds of stories is saying ‘I called up [name of incredibly prominent and busy researcher or author] to ask him about this’. If you ever listen to the Freakonomics or Planet Money podcasts, that’s always how they introduce their sources—‘I called up Ben Bernanke to talk about why my change gets lost in the dryer’ or whatever.

I now realize that those three words—‘I called up’—are a synonym for ‘I wrote an introductory e-mail to the media relations department describing my project and my publication, then spoke to them on the phone, then submitted a list of questions, then scheduled the call two weeks in advance, then had the call, then sent them the quotes to approve.’

And those are just the times when you get to the right person. The more typical response to one of these ‘can I talk to you about your work?’ e-mails is ‘this isn’t in my field of expertise, try my colleague’. Then the colleague goes ‘oh I actually don’t work on that anymore, try this former colleague’, but then their contact info is out of date and on and on and on.

And this is all totally understandable. Journalists have nothing whatsoever to offer their sources. People literally talk to me out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re busy, they’re doing much more important work than talking to me on my little Skype-machine. Large organizations like the WHO and the CDC have staff members divided into very specific subject areas—that’s how professional organizations work! The only one with an overview of the research on a particular topic is the department head, and he (understandably) does not feel like giving over a significant portion of his day to some random voice on the other end of the telephone.

Gmail tells me I sent 57 requests for interviews or data since February. I downloaded 170 academic articles, popular publications and NGO reports (not that I like read them all or whatever, but still). I had 18 in-person or phone interviews, lasting anywhere from 1.5 hours (thanks Dr. Sabin!) to 20 minutes (Chris Beyrer talked to me from a hotel room in Geneva at 8 in the morning, getting ready to chair a meeting at the WHO).

And that’s just the main sources. The data-hunting, the interview prep and transcription, the actual writing—you open your laptop on a Saturday morning, crack your knuckles and before you know it it’s dark outside.

I’m not saying this because I want to brag about how much work I did (on the contrary, I could—should!—have done way more), I’m saying it because these stories are all around us now, and no one seems to be making any money off of them, and one of the reasons they aren’t is because the work that goes into them is invisible.

In his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal talks how, when they were making Ben-Hur, their funder almost backed out when he realized they would be shooting more than three hours of film. Film was super expensive at the time, and the funder, some George Soros type, figured, well, it’s a three-hour movie, so three hours of film ought to do it. When they told him they would need hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of film for all the extra takes, he freaked out: ‘What do you need all this film for if you’re just gonna throw it away?!’

Journalism has the same problem. What you get—4,000 words summarizing some historical and epidemiological stuff most people already know—is totally out of proportion to what it costs to make it. Part of the reason my piece was so ‘expensive’, to be fair, is that I’m an amateur. I spent days tunneling down into statistical rabbit holes that petered out, some of my interview subjects didn’t turn out to be all that relevant, I polished and re-polished sections of the article that eventually got cut. But no matter how good you are at this, a three-hour movie is always going to require more than three hours of film. 

That, the extra footage, the outtakes and the failed experiments, can be reduced, but they’ll never be eliminated. And eventually, someone will have to agree to pay for them.

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Filed under Journalism, Personal

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?

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One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.

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But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.

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Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.

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What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.

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It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.

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I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.

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I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.

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It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:

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First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.

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Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.

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Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.

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These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.

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Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.

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If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.

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The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.

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But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.

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Filed under Food, Personal, Pictures, Travel

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chain Restaurants

Originally posted at The Billfold

 

Last weekend in London I had a cute little lunch at a cute little patisserie in Soho, and was feeling all satisfied with myself until I was on the Strand later in the day and saw the same patisserie—same food, same interior, same smell coming out the door.

Oh, I thought, deflated. It’s a chain.

Suddenly I felt scammed. These punks tricked me! They made me think their little bakery was all artisanal and small-scale, when actually it’s some venture-capitaled, focus-grouped, conveyor-belted profit factory. They probably have a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, some Yale econ grad staring at the surveillance cam footage of my purchase, trying to moneyball me into buying more next time.

So my immediate reaction was Well! Never going there again. But now that I’ve thought about it, I’m less sure of my reaction.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Of course it’s a chain. Soho is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. Thatcher, gentrification, celebrity chefs, they ran mom and pop outta there decades ago. The only businesses that can afford Soho rents do so through high volume, high margins and manufactured cosiness. That “grandma’s cinnamon roll” smell coming out the door is as deliberate as the font above it. What did I expect?

So I should have known. Next up: Who cares? I had a tasty meal at a reasonable price in a pleasant environment. It was precisely what I wanted. What’s the difference if there is a duplicate of my experience happening elsewhere? Or 100 duplicates? Or 1,000?

When I lived in Copenhagen, my favorite bakery was called Lagkagehuset (“layer cake house”), and it had the best bread on the planet. There was only one location in Copenhagen, family owned, and I glowed with self-satisfaction every time I bought a dense loaf of bread or a misshapen (artisanal!) breakfast roll there.

A year after I left Denmark, it was bought by a private equity firm. Now there are nine of them in Copenhagen (industrial!), and last time I visited I walked past one at the airport (monetizers!).

But you know what? The products are exactly the same. Still dense, still misshapen, still crazy-overpriced, still so salty you want to dip them in a cup of water like a hot dog eating contest. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that now I can buy them in nine places instead of one.

Which brings me to my last point: What am I actually against?

Among my people (urban, lefty, low BMI), places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Applebee’s have take the role of a kind of punchline, the culinary equivalent of Coldplay. For us, they’re not restaurants or cafes, they’re totems of America’s—and the world’s—relentless, inevitable march toward sameness.

I’m generally sympathetic to this. Starbucks kills independent cafes, McDonald’s cuts down rainforests, Applebee’s wants you to have diabetes.

But in every other aspect of my life, this doesn’t bother me. I wear Nikes, I shop at Safeway, I use rapper-endorsed headphones to drown out the clacking on my MacBook. All of this is just as mass-produced as anything from Starbucks, and yet I willingly (OK, maybe grudgingly) submit.

But chains underpay their workers, my conscience shouts. They get foodstuffs from poor farmers and nonrecyclable lids from petroleum! They donate to ugly political causes!

All that’s probably true, but there’s no reason to think an independent restaurant or café is any better by default. Maybe the guy handmaking the gluten-free scones at that ‘small batch’ bakery makes the same minimum wage as the teenager at McDonald’s. Or maybe he owns the place, and thinks women never should have been given the vote. Just because I have no way of knowing his conditions, impacts or beliefs doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they’re not problematic.

So if I don’t object to chains in principle, and I don’t object to the goods and services of some chains in particular, then all I’m left with is opposition to chains as a class signifier. I reject them not because the food is bad or they’re worse for the planet than other corporations, but because I personally don’t want to be associated with them. Starbucks is for tourists, Applebee’s is for flyovers, McDonald’s is for the poor.

I’m not defending chains, really, I’m not going to start actively seeking them out or anything. I just need to be honest with myself about what I’m avoiding, and why.

My favorite cafe in Berlin is called The Barn. Silky lattes, snobby staff, handwritten prices, brownies dense as Jupiter—it’s perfect. Just before Christmas they opened a second location, closer to my house than their first. If I’m lucky, next year they’ll open a few more.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Food, London, Personal, United Kingdom

Why Don’t Bad Employees Get Fired?

I know the purpose of this thread is to vent against our specific unproductive coworkers and marinate in middle-distance  smugness, but it mostly makes me sad. Every unproductive, overpaid employee is someone who would probably be better off doing something else, something they enjoyed more and were better at.

I think this phenomenon—people sleepwalking through their jobs—becomes an increasing problem in mid- and late-career employees, and I think it’s caused by a combination of America’s lack of a safety net for workers who quit or are fired and the extreme difficulty of switching careers after you have significant experience in one field.

People who realize at age 36 that their current job is not their passion have few options for finding another one. Going back to school is risky and financially ruinous. Leaving your current job means giving up healthcare. Employers are unlikely to hire a 40-year-old for an entry-level job. There might not be any better jobs in the city where you live and your kids go to school, etc.

We’ve built a whole labour market and economy on the assumption that workers enter and leave employment purely on the basis of their preferences and worth, but that’s rarely the case. Spending eight hours a day doing something you don’t enjoy is preferable to gambling your home, pension and security on a career change.

The real question isn’t why bad employees don’t get fired. It’s why they can’t quit.

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Filed under America, Serious, Work