by Gene Callahan
There is always a temptation to think of a statistic as a simple, straight-forward fact: Numbers don’t lie. Consider this statement from Newsweek from an article on structural unemployment in the US:
‘Another theory is that Americans are less willing to move to take jobs. The McKinsey study reports that, in the 1950s, one in five Americans moved every year; now it’s one in 10. “Work is more mobile than workers,” says Camden.’
What could be clearer? Workers are less willing to move. Just look at the numbers!
But let me suggest that things are not so simple as they appear. (To confirm my suspicion here would take a detailed look at the raw data involved, so what I am suggesting here is right now a mere suspicion, but I think it is an illustrative one.) My guess is that this statistic is comparing apples and oranges. In the 1950s and 60s, or so it is my impression, workers did not so much move for jobs as they were moved around by their companies. One found employment with a large corporation intending to work for it for forty years, and then to retire. When the company said, “You’re moving to the Rochester office,” you moved to Rochester, or you were marked as someone who wasn’t serious about their career. From the employee’s point of view, one was not so much “willing to move” as one passively went along with someone else moving one.
With the rise of two-career families and a new attention to at least appearing family friendly on the part of corporations, there is, I think, much less of this today. Employees are now offered a position in another office, and declining is no longer seen as a black mark on one’s record. To the extent the above points are true, then it is not so much that employees are less willing to move, but that they face less pressure to move. (If we want to be formal about this, we might say that w = 1 / min(p), where w is willingness to move and min(p) is the lowest external pressure encouraging a move that will initiate one. Then we might say that, contra the article quoted, it is not that w has gone down, but that the average p has gone down, so that fewer and fewer people’s min(p) is being met.)
Now, I don’t pretend to know what percentage of the 50% decline in annual moving is accounted for by the above change. The point of this post is not to make any claim in that regard, but to illustrate that, in the social sciences, every statistic requires intelligent interpretation to even decide if we have on our plates something meaningful, and, if so, what its meaning might be.