June 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

What can I do with a Ph. D. in industrial chemistry?  Not that I have a lot of students asking me that question, but here’s one answer.  Get a job as a street sweeper in Rome.

Reuters assigned photographers to do portraits of people who are, shall we say, overqualified for the jobs they could find.  The Atlantic has posted seventeen of these. 

I was reminded of the duelling Tumblr pages.  We Are the 99 Percent, started during the early days of the Occupy movement and showed the brief biographies of people like Francesco Foglia (the streetsweeper above) except that they were all Americans.  They often mentioned their student debt, their medical costs, and other difficulties that came with unemployment or with work in low-paying jobs which provided no healthcare.

We Are the 53% was created in response.*  The typical narrative there was one of hard work leading to success, often with explicit commands to the 99% that they should stop complaining and get a job.

A regular theme underlying the 99% is a sense of having been conned.  They’d been told that if they got an education and were willing to work, they would be better off.  But now they can find only menial jobs or none. From their viewpoint, something is wrong with the system.

The 53% have jobs and presumably incomes high enough to be in the tax-paying range.  They attribute their success to their own virtue, so by implication those less successful must be less virtuous. 

If this were a round of musical chairs with ten players, the nine people who fought their way to a seat might well be attributing their seated status to their own abilities.  The tenth, looking at the whole scene from his standing position, might see lack of success as having something to do with the ratio of chairs to people.  “Nonsense,” say the seated ones. “I got my chair thanks to my own efforts, so stop complaining.” 

Of course, in musical chairs, those who are now seated will soon be chairless and get a different view of the game.  In the real world, unemployment rates do not keep rising.  Still, something like one-third of small businesses fail in the first year.  Fewer than half last four years.  I wonder if those entrepreneurs have different ideas about what makes for success or failure than do the 40-45%. 

(The chart based on SBA data, is from Small Business Trends.)

Maybe the successful ones knew more about how to run a business, unlike, say, Jessica Mazza, another in the Reuters photo exhibit, who has a degree in painting and business management from Ball State. She probably did not invest in that education thinking that she would wind up working in a diner.

*The name comes from the statistic that 47% of the population have incomes so low that they owe no federal income tax.


Bob S. said...


Why does so many of your post seem to boil down to a single data point?

They attribute their success to their own virtue, so by implication those less successful must be less virtuous.

You seem to think that 'virtue' is the only factor or what others think is the only factor to their status.

Of course, you don't show any evidence supporting this view.

Most people I know aren't creatures of a single element, a single choice, a single decision.

Our lives are made up of hundreds or thousands of decisions -- some right, some wrong. Some best intentioned some not.

But it more then intents and motivations that makes a person sucessful; it is how we plan for our lives and react when things go wrong.

And things always go wrong.

It may be 'virtue' but it is work that makes those virtues into success.
I'm not saying those 99% are any less hard working, any less virtuous; what I'm saying is they are the product of their decisions.

Using your example of the street sweeper

He hoped to find a job as a researcher but has been working as a street sweeper for Rome's municipality for two years.

What decisions did he make to move him into what he wanted to do? We don't know. Did he take low paying manufacturing jobs to get experience? Did he apply to internships, did he join professional associations to network?

We don't know.

We also don't know if he refused to leave his city for another one where he could find work. We don't know how well he did in school.

What do you call the person with the highest grade point who graduates from medical School? Doctor.
What do you call the person with the lowest grade point who graduates from medical school? Doctor.
Which do you want to give you advice?

Jay Livingston said...

I agree that where people are is the result of many decisions. But in many of the statements on the 53% Tumblr page, people were implying that underlying that lifetime of decisions were more enduring qualities. Those statements fit the general pattern I mentioned: I worked hard and overcame difficulties; stop complaining and get a job. Maybe you read the statements on the 53% Tumblr page and got a different impression. If you want evidence, you are certainly welcome to read them all, code them, and run the frequencies. I’d be interested to know the results.

I agree that where people are is the result of many decisions, some good, some bad. It’s also the result of those more enduring personal qualities and abilities. But the point of the musical chairs analogy is that the context of those decisions is also important.

Imagine two musical chairs games played by the same ten people. One round only. In Game One, we remove one chair. The nine people who get seats have more of what it takes to succeed in musical chairs than the one who didn’t. In Game Two, we remove two chairs. Again, the eight who get seats are better players than the two who didn’t. But even though the abilities of the players are the same, in one game we have twice as many people who are unsuccessful.

If the unemployment rate goes from 5% to 10%, it’s not because twice as many individuals were making bad choices. As the famous Clinton dictum said, it’s the economy.

If unemployment and income are the result only of people’s decisions, thenthe unemployment rate can be brought back down to 5% by people changing their decisions. Ditto for the income (median income has been flat or downward for a decade or more). In that case, it doesn’t matter who is in office or what economic policies they enact. All we need to do is get people to make better decisions.

Bob S. said...


You are overlooking several factors and making the players in the game passive.

Each person has to enter the game or not. Each person has to decide even which game they are going to play.

It isn't just musical chairs. Look at some of the degrees. Philosophy, Literature, Marketing. People were getting these degrees after and during the recession. That is deciding to play musical chairs when you already know there aren't enough chairs.

I rigged the game I was playing in order to get my degree. I worked for a company that offered tuition reimbursement...and they wanted to make sure they got their money's worth by holding me to a 2 year work agreement after that.

We both won. Even though the economy went south and that plant closed.

It does matter what the economic policies are because people - individuals have to react to those policies and the changes they will cause.