The damage done by phones, polls and parochial careers advice

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Afternoon all,

I for one am shocked that the party that is 20 points ahead in the polls has done well, and the one that is 20 points behind has taken a kicking. No-one could have seen this coming, so it’s lucky thousands of words are now going to get written to help us understand this truly shocking turn of events. If I were you I’d ignore all the long reads on these election results, which just tell us we are exactly where we thought electoral-cycle-wise,  and focus on what TOTC has to offer instead. You’ll definitely learn a lot more.

We bring news about the dangers of phones in schools, conforming to gender norms and trying to… save lots of fish in the Bristol Channel. TOTC is nothing if not eclectic.

Have a great Bank Holiday.


Chief Executive
Resolution Foundation

Fone free. Would banning kids from mobile phones help? That’s a big row, but new evidence emerging from Norway is pretty clear that banning them from schools is the way to go. The study examines 477 schools with varying policies on mobile phone usage and finds that limiting access to mobile phones in schools: decreased doctors’ visits for psychological symptoms among girls; improved attendance and test scores for girls; reduced bullying for both genders; and made the biggest difference to the poorest kids. This isn’t a tough one.

Conformity crunch. I love reading research based on a completely different kind of data. And this is definitely different. Our IFS friends have analysed over ten thousand essays written in 1969 in which 11-year-old girls envisage their future lives at age 25. This was part of the National Child Development Study which tracks everyone born in one week in 1958 through their lives. Those whose essays conformed more closely to gender norms at the time (i.e. talk about doing housework and having a family), earned less over their working lives (one standard deviation more conformity reduces lifetime earnings by 3.5 per cent). Why? The authors attribute half of the effect to greater expectations of/preferences for gender conformity reducing educational attainment, raising the chances of working in a lower paying occupation, and earlier family formation. On what drives these expectations/preferences, the research shows that in regions with higher levels of female employment and university attendance, 11-year-old girls conformed less (or, I suppose, conformed to a different standard). Interesting stuff, and we can now tell our kids to try hard on their homework for a whole new reason: you never know who’ll be reading it fifty years later…

Parental preferences. To continue the theme… Why do we stick to the old gendered grooves jobs wise (boys: STEM and full-time work, girls: humanities and part-time work)? Parents are partly responsible argues a new paper. The authors survey almost 6,000 Swiss adults about what advice they’d give a child of a specific gender considering training for two randomly selected occupations (one in a male dominated field and one in a female dominated field). The results? Parents gave their daughters gender-neutral advice on career options but nudged sons towards male-dominated (higher-paid) occupations. It was essentially fifty-fifty whether a parent would recommend a male or female dominated field to a daughter, but for a son there was a 60 per cent change of a male-dominated field being recommended. So, as ever, it’s us parents getting the blame.

Powerful polls. We should have one political read at least. For those paying attention yesterday, Sadiq Khan’s messaging was all about low turnout and the danger the Conservatives win despite his huge poll lead – motivating complacent Labour supporters to vote. He was trying to counteract a force well evidenced in a new Warwick university study: polls that indicate an election won’t be close decrease turnout. The authors examine UK general elections between 1983 and 2017, interestingly examining how the turnout suppressing/boosting effect of opinion polls varies between marginal and safe seats. They conclude the effect is bigger in safe seats, especially where the beneficiary of that ‘safeness’ (ie the local incumbent) represents the party ahead in national polls. Basically, expect low turnout in safe labour seats come the general election. This is why you can expect to hear Labour insisting that laurels should not be rested on, nor chickens counted, till polling day – and the impact of opinion polls on voter behaviour is why some countries (including 16 out of 27 EU countries) have some form of poll reporting ban during elections run-ins.

Pricey power. On the way to Exmoor the other week I, for the first time, saw the ginormous construction project that is Hinkley Point on the Somerset coast. It’s an impressive sight, but a long way from a cheap building site: this looks set to be the most expensive nuclear power plant ever built. What’s going on? Sam Dumitriu has a great new blog that adopts the underused research technique of… going there and asking the people involved in building it. The biggest theme is the danger of too much bespoke ‘starting from scratch’ on these kind of projects – we only make them cheap by doing the same thing over and over again. Oh, and there are trade-offs between cost and protecting too many fish from being… cooked. Have a read.

Chart of the Week

Those long reads on the election results I told you to ignore will be busy apportioning blame for Conservative losses between Rwanda, Reform and Rishi. That’s all very poetic but they’re missing something far more important driving today’s politics: people are pissed off because they are worse off. I’m not sure people have clocked that British households, long famed as people who kept shopping and drinking whatever the economic weather, are consuming less today than they were at the time of the last election. As COTW shows we’re spending more in £ terms, but there’s a ‘more for less’ trend here that people hate: real consumption per head is actually down around 5 per cent. No politician is going to persuade people things are going well in Britain against that backdrop. Across the pond the situation is very different, with yanks still consuming like there’s no tomorrow (up 8 per cent over the same period). That’s why Democratic strategists are anxious about culture campus wars, but cautiously optimistic that voters will give Biden some credit for the US economy turning a corner before November’s election. Note these consumption patterns do not just reflect the higher inflation shock to incomes here in the UK – we’ll explain why not in a TOTC special in a fortnight…