Inequalities – (re)emerging types

As inequality grows, scholars are finding its manifestations in new, or renewed, contexts. The core inequalities of wealth, income, gender, and race are familiar and well studied. They affect and define all of us personally. Some of their direct derivatives are also familiar, such as the inequalities of education, health and opportunity. But we are less familiar with newer, or newly coined, types of inequalities. This article quickly reviews four such inequalities, namely those of broadband, leisure, longevity, and productivity

Broadband Inequality

Broadband is fast, continuous, and reliable internet access. (The 2018 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) report is a useful start for a general overview of the global state of broadband.)

Inequality of broadband depends on four specific factors: geography (urban-rural, developed-developing country), economy (income level, cost of access), politics (racial and gender differences in access), and society (education level).

Geography is a key determinant. Developing countries and rural locations in all countries have less access to broadband compared to industrialized countries and urban settings.  Although global internet access has been growing fast (shown by this interactive graph from the World Bank),  42% of the world is yet to be connected as of mid-2019 according to Internet World Stats. The unconnected are mostly in Africa and Asia, and the rural settings in all countries. 

The economic factor is an issue of cost: broadband affordability is a major obstacle for low income and poor people. Here is a list of countries ranked by their average cost of internet access. Rates in the US are higher than many other industrialized countries. The cost of internet access in major US cities, such as New York or San Francisco, are significantly higher than in London or Paris. But an average monthly cost of $50-100 seem affordable compared to the monthly cost of broadband in Mauritania ($768.16) or Papua New Guinea ($571.67)!

The flip side of affordability is the disinterest of internet service providers in laying the necessary infrastructure in poor or low income neighborhoods where profitability potential is low.  Often local and national government agencies step in to level the field. For example, the US has a National Broadband Plan since 2010, and established a $4.5 billion Connect America Fund in 2011. The American plan grew out of the 2008 recession recovery efforts and highlights the need for broadband access for health, education, civic engagement, economic opportunity and public safety. Other countries also have national broadband plans given that being connected is increasingly a necessity. 

Politics of race and gender, as well as social factors such as level of education directly affect broadband access as well. Worldwide, women and girls have less access than men and boys. Communities of color have much less access than the dominant political groups: in the US Native Americans and African Americans have much lower broadband access than other groups. And those with more years of education invariably have more broadband access. 

As a way to improve their lack of broadband access, some underserved communities are taking matters into their own hands. For example, in Detroit where 40% of the people are not connected, the Detroit Community Technology Project is helping the local communities to build  their own wireless network. A February 2020 report by the Pew Charitable Trust examines the rural broadband experience in nine states in the USA, including the engagement of state and local level stakeholders from these communities.

The immediate benefits of broadband in the form of jobs, income, education, and health as well as access to important public services (which are increasingly provided online) need no explanation. This fact was made starkly clear when the COVID19 pandemic lockdowns were put in place around the world, pushing millions into online schooling and working from home.

Given that the broadband providers will not go the extra mile to reduce broadband inequality, local and national government institutions need to step in to prevent this inequality from further deepening. The initiatives by Microsoft and T-mobile taken in response to the pandemic, should not remain a one time emergency reaction but become building blocks for long-term partnerships for broadband access equality. 

Leisure Inequality

A few years ago the New York Times ran a story about a low income woman who had to carry three jobs to make ends meet. She had no time between the three jobs so often rested in her car before her next shift. She was found dead of toxic fumes from her car’s running engine because it was a cold day. The story made me think how unequal allocation of time for rest and leisure had become when it should be a human right. 

Leisure is time free from work and duty, to do what one chooses whether that is resting, entertainment, arts, sports, hobbies, social interaction, or just doing nothing. But around the idea of free time there is a moat filled with philosophical, religious and political alligators. Getting free time is often conditional to having deserved it by hard work, which is often defined by someone other than you. Using your leisure time on pursuits such as arts or sports is considered more admirable than just lazing about because idleness is not valued in general. Yet, idle time is often a time for creativity, problem solving, thinking, and letting the subconscious to do its magic. Furthermore, rest (and fun) are necessary ingredients for productivity, for healthy child development, and for adult mental health.

For most of human history if not all, leisure was unequal. The ruling classes – whether born noble or rich or both – received more of it while the rest toiled without much rest let alone leisure. The classical Greek philosophers considered work to be lowly and leisure as the highest value for a morally superior class: their lives were best filled with leisure, learning and leadership. Everyone else  especially the non-citizens, manual laborers and slaves, did not get much free time: somebody had to cater to the needs of the superior class debating, philosophizing, and enjoying various arts, with sprinkles of war-making as needed.

Leisure became a human right in 1948 with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its Article 24 read: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” (This may have a link with Eleanor Roosevelt who was instrumental in drafting and adoption of the Declaration. Her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had passed a labor rights bill in 1938 which set a minimum wage and limited the workweek to a maximum of 44 hours.) 

Neither leisure nor leisure inequality seem to have received the same level of scholarly attention that work has. This is changing because of automation and its impact on our understanding of work: we can expect more research on the topic.

One frequently quoted study on leisure inequality is from 2007. It reviewed distribution of leisure time across education levels over nearly four decades (1965 to 2003). One of its findings was that starting in 1985 leisure time of the high-skilled-more-educated people began a decline while increasing for the  low-skilled-less-educated people, especially men. A 2019 study found similar results concluding that the ”…low skilled individuals nowadays enjoy systematically more than average leisure time.” [I find use of the verb “enjoy” in this context offensive as if these men chose leisure over work. It will be fair to recognize that the employment rate of this demographic has been steadily dropping from its high point of 96% in the 1970s while their real wages have been declining since the 1980s. The growing “leisure time” is not their choice.]  

Automation and robotics have already altered how we see both work and leisure. If these technological changes were brining a more equal and fair future, we could look forward to spending our time on hobbies, social interactions, and arts. Unfortunately, so far automation is exacerbating the existing inequalities of our societies starting with the concentration of its benefits in very few hands. If automation and other digital technologies are making our societies more unequal, how will leisure fare in this scenario? Will we, in another century or less, end up looking like the ancient Greek society: a small “superior class” enjoying leisure, learning and leadership, robots catering to their needs, with the rest of humanity living an apocalyptic life outside the gates? Technologies reflect our economic and political choices. We can chose different. 

Inequality of Longevity

This inequality type is gaining traction recently and  is a potential new frontier for the inequality discourse and research. I first pondered on the topic while reading a New York Times article, about how the poor in the US are losing ground not only in income but also in life expectancy. The article explained that “in the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half, …… Fast-forward to 2001, and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart.” The gap is more than ten years now.

The main determinant of longevity is economic: that is, wealth and income level. Other cross-cutting determinants include education and race as more educated live longer, and dominant racial group members live longer than members of the minority groups. There is a plethora of research on these linkages such as this from 2016.  

These links are straightforward: the wealthier can afford better health care, better nutrition, a trainer to stay in shape etc.  What makes longevity inequality interesting to me is not these obvious links but the potential impact of recent technological advances on it.

Amazing developments in genetics, robotics and artificial intelligence are making unusually long lives less science fiction and more science fact. There are more than 100 companies working on various life extending technologies ranging from growing new organs to replace those failing, to therapies for lengthening telomeres (important part of your chromosomes, as they shorten you age). Of course to benefit from these technological developments still require wealth and high incomes because genetic manipulations or artificial augmentation of the human body are affordable to only the very rich. Participation in a clinical trial for a telomere lengthening therapy  had a price tag of $1 million per person.  

The possibility of artificially extending one’s lifetime attracts  wealthy people many of whom appear to share two beliefs: (i)  that the world will get better and better, and (ii) that because they are intellectually special their longer life would be a gift to humanity. To me the second smells of too much self-importance and the first of knowingly disregarding scientific facts such as climate change unless they know how to solve that wicked problem. 

Productivity Inequality

The “productivity gap” has been on the agenda of economists for some time, especially since the correlation of productivity and wages stopped its traditional parallel path. In the last few decades, new technologies increased productivity but wages did not grow in tandem.

Productivity is producing more with less: using less time, fewer inputs, less effort etc. The gap in productivity in this case is between companies or industry sectors rather than between individuals. The employees of the more productive productive companies are high skilled-educated and are paid more. Those who work for low productivity companies are  low skilled- educated, and paid much less. The latter group may be working harder than ever but their pay does not reflect the higher effort. This earning impact of productivity gap is observed in all OECD countries although some manage the gap better, like Germany, where vocational training enable workers without a university degree obtain marketable skills and raise their earnings.

Technological advances favor the high skilled who in turn generate further technological advances: a circular pattern. In the meantime the gap between them and the low-skilled workers gets wider with significant social and political ramifications. Many lower skilled workers in the heartland of the US, who were previously middle class have been losing out and veering toward political choices favoring protectionism, nationalism, even authoritarianism. These trends pose significant threats to the constructs of  “rule of law” and “democracy” that underline modern societies.

Those who study the widening productivity gap suggest strong(er) policies to close the education and skills gap especially in light of the technological unemployment from automation in sectors that traditionally employ the low skilled less educated workers. Education and training are also emphasized by students and observers of how society and economy are affected by automation and other exponential technologies. However, as I noted in another piece on this website, it is easy to suggest more education and training as the solution but difficult to make it happen. It takes time, money and supportive policies which are scarce especially in those countries where  higher education is expensiveResearch shows that an American family with a child born in 2020 may expect to spend over $400,000  for a four year private college and about half that for a public university. This growing cost makes higher education practically unaffordable for children of the low skilled less educated workforce both in the US and around the world expect in those countries that make education and vocational training accessible even free. Productivity is like motherhood and apple pie: everyone wants it. But can we make it work for all instead of the few? 






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About Zehra Aydin 14 Articles
Retired UN staff; expert in sustainable development, SDGs, UN system and international environmental negotiations; writing on climate change, inequality, technology and the UN; teaching sustainable development and corporate social responsibility

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