February 13th, 2013

In the "News": Declining Birth Rate in the United States

Pediatrics, the "Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics" published their Annual Summary of Vital Statistics 2010-2011.

First things first: I have Issues with pediatrics, pediatricians and the AAP. Why go there? Even I find my Issues boring. I mention it because this is an authoritative source -- I just don't necessarily like the authority in question. Altho I don't actually question their ability to count things, which is what they are doing here.

There was a lot of secondary coverage. It was unusually bad.

Every year, for quite a long time now, about 4 million babies have been born in the United States. That didn't really change. In 2011, it was 3,953,593 (from the abstract). This was a decline from the previous year, and the General Fertility Rate also declined (63.2/1000 women).

Wikipedia's Demography article sez: GFR is "the annual number of live births per 1,000 women of childbearing age (often taken to be from 15 to 49 years old, but sometimes from 15 to 44)". If you think about it, GFR drops when there are fewer live births OR more women of childbearing age. That second one is actually really important, when you look at the size of Gen Y vs. Gen X. The effect is to have a big bulge of youngish Gen Yers who, like preceding cohorts, are delaying births, but who affect the GFR.

So don't worry about GFR.

Teen births dropped to a new low, 31.3/1000. Let's all applaud the responsible teenagers and excellent parenting and supportive local governments and national advocacy organizations which worked to accomplish this.

Birth rates dropped for 20-29, which probably can be blamed on a combination of Gen Y being big, general delaying of child birth to age 30 and the recession being unusually hard on 20 somethings. Birth rates increased for 35-39 and 40-44, which is about what we all know is happening.

No change in c-section (*sigh*). Tiny, probably meaningless change in unmarried vs. married (altho that, too, could be recession related as richer people are more likely to be married and financially able to afford a kid -- make sure you get that causal arrow right. Getting married does not make you richer; being richer makes you more likely to get married).

Preterm birth dropped (yay! Possibly aided by hospital and region wide bans on schedule c-sections before 37 weeks). Low birth weight rate dropped (ditto). No change in infant mortality (*sigh*, altho it is low, so hard to know what to do at this point).

What happens when the rest of the Gen Y bulge start having A Kid (plus one, where people are able to meet the societal ideal of two children, or more, if they are able and inclined)? Well, we'll see GFR rise, and crude birth rate rise, and people will probably pat themselves on the back for how their particular program or wtf for how to increase births Worked. It'll likely happen in tandem with a long-ish recovery (since this recovery has gone so slowly, if we manage not to completely torpedo it, history suggests it might last longer than average as well -- long term pent up demand has that effect), which will itself tend to lead to increased births over time (altho a fair number of people will permanently have smaller families as a result of straitened circumstances -- and I'm no demographer so I can't figure out which of these curves has more area under it).

There is no new story here. We're getting teen births down. Women are delaying child bearing. The economy sucks. People are living longer. And Gen X was a relatively small cohort. You can look at derivative figures and turn this into a story, but it is not a story.

Neither is population wide innumeracy.

Neither is the fact that a large fraction of the population is still worried about a population "bomb", when the opposite of that has been the trend for decades.

But, you know, gotta talk about something, right?

Predicting the Future: "House" Cleaning

I reviewed our Roomba recently. I was bothered that so few gadget reviewers compared the cost of the device to the cost of hiring someone to do the vacuuming for you, and decided to dig deeper into the house cleaning industry to see if there were any interesting trends. I figured if people move into smaller spaces (part of the densification trend), and own more virtual goods (cases full of media need to be dusted, and books in particular generate a shocking amount of dust; virtualization ought to reduce the amount of cleaning needed), maybe they would tend to hire less help over time.

Wow, did that theory blow up on me. Fast. Welcome to the world of schedule one-off apartment cleaning on your mobile device. TaskRabbit is a service which lets you, with money and a to do list, hire that person over there, with time and a Can Do attitude, get together to exchange money and services. While you can hire people on TaskRabbit to do everything from scan your CD collection into iTunes to clean your house, there are also specialized services. Uber, for example, will put a driver at your location on demand to take you where you need to go. And PathJoy and GetMaid will let you schedule n-hours of cleaning on your mobile device. The payment setup and business model is a little different, but both emphasize high quality, bonded service providers, fluent English. GetMaid charges a supplies fee and expects you to have a mop, broom and vacuum on site. PathJoy ... does not. Yelp reviews on PathJoy are unlike anything I have ever seen before in my life: overwhelmingly 5 stars, with a smattering of 1 stars. Nothing in the middle. It is weird. And the people who love PathJoy are NOT traditional cleaning service customers: they are people who generally take care (or not) of their own space, but have someone in once in a while to catch up. They are more typically in apartments than houses. And they are more often men than women. As Curves did with gyms and middle-aged women, PathJoy appears to be creating an entirely new market for cleaning services.

During the 1990s boom, restaurants went out of business and/or shortened their hours despite seas of customers (this was in Seattle) because their servers were getting jobs at web startups -- waiters were learning HTML, literally. In some ways, TaskRabbit, GetMaid, Pathjoy, and so forth are all attempts to deal with our new "normal" of underemployment. If we return to a world of full time employment at regular hours, we're all going to be angry that these things are no longer available to help us keep up with the rest of our lives. But I don't think that's going to happen any time soon, and this does create some life-work balance choices that were otherwise missing.

I've been trying to find anything at all about what it is like to work for PathJoy as a cleaner and not succeeding well at all. It sounds, based on the rah-rah-invest-in-us stuff that PathJoy and GetMaid are both hiring cleaners away from existing cleaning services. They can do this in part because the existing services pay very poorly and offer few benefits, but charge a lot to the customer (cleaner gets $10/hour or less; service charges $30/hour or more, type of thing -- typical temp work set up, in other words). PathJoy is offering the cleaner a bigger fraction of the total charge, and a lower total charge, and they are claiming this works because they don't have phone (re)scheduling: you schedule through the web or a mobile device.

PathJoy has also addressed the cash flow problem, either in part or in whole, for themselves and possibly also for their cleaners. Small services often charge their customers 3 weeks or more after the cleaning was done (I am NOT making this up); I don't know when they pay their employees, but I wouldn't be surprised to find out that was in arrears also, outside of states like Massachusetts where there is law preventing that. PathJoy's online scheduling also apparently handles electronic payment, which means instead of having to pay their employees before collecting from their customers, they may well have reversed things, so that they are able to collect from their customers before they are required by law to pay their employees (even in states like Massachusetts).

I apologize if your eyes glazed over, but this is a FUCKING HUGE DEAL. This is free cash flow, and the bigger your scale, the bigger the pile of cash you have floating around. True, you do have to pay your bills, but you have it for at least a little while, and Amazon proved that free cash flow could be used to scale a business so you didn't have to borrow money and pay interest to accomplish the same goal. Which saves you even more money.

I remain unconvinced that PathJoy can sustain a $20/hour cleaning fee; I think they'll find pretty quickly that they have more customers at that price point than they can find (good) cleaners to serve, and if they reduce the cleaner quality, it'll harm their reputation. _At least in the Bay Area_. Their jobs page suggests they are expanding into places like Texas, however, and the economics will be Very, Very Different there. While PathJoy is expanding eastward and may not reach the east coast before GetMaid takes over that market, if GetMaid (with a much higher hourly rate, and a contract-to-existing-services setup, at least for part of its area) screws up badly enough, PathJoy ought to be able to "clean up" in places like Orlando, with lots of apartments with two employed parents who don't have a lot of time to keep up on the domestic arts.