Links that made us think: Broadening ambition, #RaceTogether, when technology makes laws obsolete

From Matt: Best Laid Plans: When career ambitions break up a marriage (Jessica Grose, Slate): Slate is running a very interesting interview series on how people make career decisions, and how life sometimes gets in the way. This particular article follows a young married couple, Caitlin and Stephen, who have recently separated. To very briefly summarize: Stephen is a teaching squash professional; Caitlin is a full-time law student and former consultant. When they were first married, they both lived in Virginia. Caitlin was doing her Masters, and then working as an architectural historian – with low pay, no benefits, and little job security. Stephen was teaching squash – with low pay at first, but with lots of upward mobility. Caitlin eventually found a better-paying consulting job in D.C. Stephen thought he had lined up a squash job in D.C., but moved back to Virginia when it fell through, insisting she join him. His insistence increased when she lost her job in D.C. Her parents also encouraged her to move back to Virginia. The pressures from both Stephen and Caitlin’s parents seemed to have sexist undertones – the implication being in part that, because he could support her, she should focus on what’s best for his career. Instead, she decided to stay in D.C. to go to law school, and they separated.

I was mostly with Caitlin until she said: “Forget Lean In. I want the ‘airplane rule’: Put the oxygen mask over your face before you put one on anyone else’s. I want to have a great career that makes me happy and where I feel valuable, and I don’t agree that being married means someone has to sacrifice. As long as I’m doing what I think is fulfilling, then that’s what has to come first, otherwise it doesn’t make anyone else happy.”

This gave me pause, because to me, the ‘airplane rule’ (a common sentiment among ambitious people) represents a fundamental problem with how we have come to define ambition in modern Western society. The dictionary definition of ‘ambition’ (according to Google) is: “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” These days, the goals typically identified with the notion of ambition are career goals – related somehow to wealth, power, or prestige. Just like the airplane rule states, family and relationship goals can easily take a backseat.

But why can’t we be ambitious about our family lives and relationships? It is widely recognized that successful careers require determination and hard work, but it seems all too often assumed that successful marriages and families can simply fall into one’s lap. The philosophy of the airplane rule seems to be that if you never prioritize or make sacrifices for your marriage, it will somehow be better for it. But, as anyone who has been happily married for any length of time can attest, this is patently false. Marriage, too, requires determination and hard work. It works best when both parties make it a priority. This does not mean always being selfish or always being the one to sacrifice (particularly not out of any sense of duty to antiquated gender roles); but, to me, it does mean putting the marriage ahead of either person’s individual ambitions, and taking the same pride in the marriage that one would any other type of ambitious achievement – because that’s exactly what it is.

From Ian: What happens when technology makes laws obsolete? This week witnessed two court rulings in class-action suits in California addressing whether drivers of the rideshare services Uber and Lyft should be considered employees or independent contractors. In both rulings, the courts decided they had no idea. As U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria wrote, “The test the California courts have developed over the 20th Century for classifying workers isn’t very helpful in addressing this 21st Century problem.” California law stipulates that a jury must decide which way to break this ambiguity. Uber and Lyft are part of a growing cohort of “freelance marketplace” companies that, instead of hiring a team of employees to perform services for customers, claim to simply act as middlemen between independent contractors and customers, and therefore say they are not employers for the service providers.

The extra benefits that employees are entitled to comes with the assumption that they are employed and supervised for a long period of time by a single employer with regular hours and direct supervision. On the other hand, contractors are assumed to have fewer guaranteed benefits, but more flexibility. They tend to be hired for specific jobs with a limited time period, and have a greater level of autonomy, with the ability to serve multiple clients. Uber drivers fall directly in between these norms, with more autonomy than a typical employee, but far less flexibility than a typical contractor. Since there are a wide variety of new companies in other sectors using this business model, like AirBnb (hospitality), Homejoy (cleaning services), Washio (laundry services), BloomThat (flowers), and Shyp (shipping), this ruling has the potential to broadly impact this new industry, a 21st century industry that is constantly pushing up against 20th century legal boundaries. Whether and how this experiment is allowed to continue should be left to elected governments to decide, who should do so by passing proper regulations for this industry after thorough diligence and deliberation is done. Therefore I hope the juries, with considerably fewer resources, less expertise and less accountability than legislatures in making these decisions, will let the experiment continue for now.

From Niya: #RaceTogether: This week Starbucks C.E.O. Howard Schultz opened up a conversation that he started within the organization three months ago. In a grand gesture of corporate social responsibility, he empowered his partners, his barristas to make consumer’s cups with #RaceTogether as a way to indicate that they were open to and interested in a conversation about race relations with their clients. While the intent was well-meaning, because one should be able to talk about complex issues, like racism and the impact it has on communities, in community spaces like the local coffee shop, the response has been far from favourable. Perhaps it’s because the marketing material (caucasian looking hands holding the iconic white cups marked with #RaceTogether) seems to obviously exclude people of colour. Perhaps it’s because Starbucks consumers realize that more needs to be done than conversations over coffee with people who probably agree with you. Or maybe it’s because Starbucks consumers and others expect more from a multinational organization with enough purchasing power to influence the economies of countries that grow coffee that “starting” a conversation that has already been happening. Would it have gone better if Starbucks had used some of it’s CSR budget to fund organizations that are working to make positive change on this sensitive issue? Maybe. I’m curious to see how the response from consumers shapes future CSR action on the part of multinationals, and how they choose to use, or not use their buying power to effect social change. Two recent articles on opposite sides of the #RaceTogether issue can be found here and here.

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