December 17, 2015
Social Status in the Age of Vermeer
A Lady Writing
By the 17th century, the Netherlands had developed a major financial industry and thriving maritime commerce in goods produced by the country’s textile mills, dairy farms, herring fisheries, and sugar refineries. The resulting large and diverse middle class supplies the rich subject matter for a portrait exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
The paintings in “Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” are grouped into one of the three classes: the upper crust, the middle classes, and the laborers and indigent.
The Dutch elite – nobility, textile merchants, and wealthy landowners – commissioned portraits “to express and affirm their status,” according to exhibit materials. These paintings are replete with class symbols, such as the gleaming armor worn by princes to highlight their privilege as well as military prowess. The status symbols in the exhibit’s signature 1665 painting above by Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing,” go beyond the silver inkwell and pearls on the woman’s writing table. Status is also implied in what she is doing: “The very act of writing tells us she is educated and literate and has the leisure time to write letters,” the exhibit states.
But in the Golden Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the true sign of prosperity was the Dutch middle-class, which was the largest and most highly stratified class. This big tent took in everything from trained professionals and skilled artisans to modest shopkeepers. Middle class people might be extremely wealthy shipbuilders, successful goldsmiths, respected barbers (who performed minor medical procedures), or modest tailors and bakers. They were also often defined by “the [investment] capital at their disposal,” which distinguished them from the rich who inherited their wealth and the poor who earned low wages by selling their unskilled labor.
The Shipbuilder and his Wife
“The very top of the middle class” can be seen in the above 1663 masterpiece, “The Shipbuilder and his Wife.” The shipbuilder, Jan Rijcksen, an investor in the Dutch East India Company, was so well-off that he could afford to commission a portrait by the most fashionable painter in Amsterdam: Rembrandt van Rijn. In the painting, Rijcksen is receiving an urgent letter from his wife, Griet Jans.Learn More
December 3, 2015
Is Betting on Fantasy Sports Addicting?
“The best adrenaline rush ever,” says one of the barrage of fantasy sports commercials broadcast into living rooms this football season.
An adrenaline rush is known to be a hallmark of addiction to other types of gambling, which can trigger the brain’s pleasure center much like the triggers in a drug addict’s brain, according to University of Cambridge psychologists.
Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans are playing fantasy football and other sports online for money. The Internet has made this so accessible that it could facilitate the rapid-fire betting associated with problematic gambling.
Playing fantasy sports is “as easy as ordering a pizza online … [or] texting your friends,” a relapsed gambler told the New York Times. He said he lost nearly $20,000 on football, tennis, and Japanese basketball. And losing is easy but the odds of winning are long: an investigation by the New York State attorney general found that 1 percent of players “receive the vast majority of the winnings” paid out by two prominent sports fantasy websites. …Learn More
October 15, 2015
High-deductible Health Plans on the Rise
Health insurance is really starting to hurt.
Premium increases and deductible creep, documented in the Kaiser Family Foundation’s comprehensive annual survey of employer health benefits, are eye-popping figures. Although there has been a slowdown in medical inflation and health care spending overall, the growing prominence of high-deductible plans is evidence that more of these costs are shifting to employees.
- One in four workers today is enrolled in a health insurance plan with a high deductible – up from 4 percent a decade ago – exposing them to larger out-of-pocket expenses than traditional health plans if they become ill. [Kaiser’s definition of high-deductible plans is that they are accompanied by a tax-preferred savings plan to help workers pay their medical bills.]
- These deductibles average around $2,000 for single coverage, but they exceed $3,000 for about 20 percent of single workers. Deductibles average $4,350 for a family plan, but nearly 20 percent face deductibles exceeding $6,000.
- Average annual premiums for single workers in these plans range from $773 to $1,021, while family plan premiums are $3,660 to $4,407.
- Everyone’s deductibles are rising much faster than premiums. For example, the share of the annual premium paid by all single workers with health coverage has increased 19 percent since 2010, to $1,071. But their deductibles have risen 67 percent, to $1,077.
- Retiree health care trends, in contrast, might be stabilizing. Since 2009, the share of larger companies offering the coverage to retirees has bounced around between 23 percent and 28 percent.
Employers are also paying more for annual premiums, according to Kaiser – about $1,000 more per single worker than they paid in 2010 and about $2,800 more for a family plan.
But it’s clear from the data that this shared burden falls heavily on employees.
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September 22, 2015
Prime-Age Job Market Still Weak
The job market appears in fine form. August’s unemployment rate, at 5.1 percent, is now at half of its Great Recession levels.
But while the media latch on to the unemployment rate in the federal government’s monthly jobs reports, economists like Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution are interested in a different number that’s also part of the monthly update: labor force participation among people in their prime working years, ages 25 through 54.
They are the heart of the labor market, and the trend in their participation rate paints a bleaker picture of the job market, Burtless noted in a recent report. In August, the rate was just 80.7 percent – and still below the 83 percent level prior to the 2008-2009 recession.
Labor force participation is the percentage of Americans working or looking for work. It’s critical to how the job market’s faring, because when it declines it means that even people in their prime working years are giving up on finding a job, indicating underlying weakness in the job market.
On a brighter note, the percentage of prime-age workers who have jobs is rising, though this also remains below pre-recession levels.
Burtless concludes, “The labor market is healing, but the sustained drop in participation is an indicator that the job market is still some way from robust good health.”Learn More
August 25, 2015
Workplace Benefit Inequality
Inequality goes beyond the wealth and income disparities that frequently make it into today’s headlines. Employer benefits also flow more freely to people at the top.
The newly released survey of employers by the U.S. Bureau of Labor shows how stark the differences are.
The charts below compare the share of private-sector workers in the lowest income bracket who receive benefits – their earnings are in the bottom 25 percent of all U.S. workers’ earnings – with the share in the top 25 percent. Four benefits are compared: health insurance, the percent of health premiums paid by employers, paid sick leave, and – since it’s August – paid vacations.
For the other charts, click here.Learn More
August 18, 2015
The Future of Retirement Is Now
Gray, small, and distinctly female.
This is what the director of MIT’s AgeLab, Joseph Coughlin, sees when he peers into the future of retirement.
“The context and definition of retirement is changing,” Coughlin said earlier this month at the Retirement Research Consortium meeting, where nearly two dozen researchers also presented their Consortium-funded work on a range of retirement topics. Their research summaries can be found at this link to the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog and is a consortium member.
Coughlin spooled out a list of stunning facts to impress on his audience the dramatic impact of rising longevity and graying populations in the developed world, and he urged them to think in fresh ways about retirement. In Japan, for example, adult diapers are outselling baby diapers. China already faces a looming worker shortage, and Germany’s population is in sharp decline. In 2047, there will be more Americans over age 60 than children under 15.
“The country will have the demographics of Florida,” Coughlin said. …Learn More
June 30, 2015
Once-Jobless Boomers Still Struggling
Baby boomers face a Catch-22.
Many boomers will have to stay employed longer than they’d hoped to close the gap between what they’ll need in retirement and what they can realistically afford. Yet the job market is tough for job-hunting older workers, and if they are employed, wages stagnate or decline when people get into their 50s.
A new report by the AARP Public Policy Institute shows the continuing toll on workers ages 45 and older who have suffered a bout of unemployment since the onset of the Great Recession. Lower pay, fewer hours, or more limited benefits in their new jobs and a prolonged inability to find any job are plaguing these workers. AARP found that only half of those hit by job losses have found work, and the rest either remain unemployed or may have given up and dropped out of the labor force entirely.
AARP’s representative survey of some 2,500 older Americans, conducted late last year, aligns with earlier academic studies looking at the Great Recession’s impact on older workers. The youngest boomers are now 50, so the survey includes some people in Generation X.
The following are AARP’s major findings: