Feminizing wages, labor unions' flexing power and Ryan Reynolds : The Indicator from Planet Money You ask, we answer! Today we answer listener questions on whether certain jobs are becoming "feminized" since COVID started and how that affects what these jobs pay. We also examine labor unions' economic impact and why Ryan Reynolds keeps sending one of our co-hosts a Christmas card.

Related episodes:
Women's labor comeback (Apple Podcasts / Spotify)
A conversation with Claudia Goldin (Update) (Apple Podcasts / Spotify)
Unions but make them grunge
What's really going on with unions

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How do cheap cell phone plans make money? And other questions

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And I'm Darian Woods.


And I'm Adrian Ma, and it is time for another edition of Listener Questions. That's where we collect some of your burning questions and find the answers.

WONG: Today we're looking at women returning to the workforce, labor unions - are they good or bad for the economy? And what is up with Ryan Reynolds hawking cellphone plans all the time?

WOODS: This is the big one. So that's all coming up after the break.


WONG: All right. Listener Questions - first up, we have Nick (ph) from Brooklyn.

NICK: Hello, INDICATOR team - long-time listener, first-time questioner. In the spring of this year, it was announced that T-Mobile was going to acquire mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, Mint Mobile. And it got me thinking, since MVNOs technically resell cellular service from the large cellular carriers, how does an MVNO make a profit?

WONG: As Nick says, Mint Mobile uses the T-Mobile network but operates independently as its own company. This is what's commonly referred to as a mobile virtual network operator. Full disclosure - Mint is also an NPR sponsor. So Mint provides cell service but doesn't actually own the infrastructure or have any of its own stores. Other carriers like this that you may have heard of are Boost Mobile, Tello and Cricket Wireless.

WOODS: I actually happen to be a Mint Mobile user, only for the reason that it seemed to be cheaper than the other ones I looked at.

WONG: Oh. And were you influenced to sign up with Mint because you saw a Ryan Reynolds commercial?

WOODS: I did not. It was mainly just that they were cheaper. But I have since seen him. He actually sends me Christmas cards...

WONG: He does?

WOODS: ...As part of the Mint - yeah, there's something wholesome about getting a Christmas card from Ryan Reynolds.

WONG: Yeah, America's sweetheart. So, unlike Darian, most of us have probably heard of Mint because of these Ryan Reynolds ads.


RYAN REYNOLDS: As owner of Mint Mobile, I always want to find ways to save you money. So let's meet the barely paid spokesperson for the new Mint family plan - my mom.

TAMMY REYNOLDS: You look thin, sweetheart. Are you eating?

R REYNOLDS: OK, let's focus. Stick to the script there, Mom.

WONG: Ryan Reynolds himself now has this business portfolio that includes gin, a soccer team and other tech companies. And he does like to serve as spokesperson for a lot of them. So I don't know if you've - maybe you'll be influenced to buy gin or a soccer team yourself one of these days, Darian (laughter).

WOODS: I've wondered why I've started following these other soccer teams and (laughter)...

MA: Spent all my money on gin and soccer tickets.

WONG: But, you know, these companies - these MVNOs can provide these cheap cellphone plans because they don't have operating costs like physical stores or technicians to maintain the cell towers. And there was this article in a tech publication called TechRadar that said Mint Mobile's pricing structure helps keep costs low, too. Customers buy cellphone plans in these chunks of three, six or 12 months, and that means they're giving Mint Mobile a more consistent revenue stream than if they were on a typical month-to-month plan.

WOODS: Ah, got it.

WONG: Now, after T-Mobile announced they would be taking over Mint Mobile, a lot of customers were worried this would mean higher plan prices and changes to monthly data caps, but so far, T-Mobile says it has no plans to change Mint's underlying model.

WOODS: OK, so possibly cheaper advertising costs, keeping customers in there for longer and not a whole lot of expenses on infrastructure - yeah, I guess that makes sense.

WONG: So you'll keep us informed, Darian, if they pull any funny business on you post-merger.


MA: Next up, we have a question from Janelle (ph) in Atlanta, Ga.

JANELLE: Hi, INDICATOR. I am a sociologist by trade. And when I'm teaching my students about work and occupations, we talk about how as an occupation becomes more feminized, meaning more women begin working in it, men not only leave the profession, but the average salary drops. I'm curious about the gender trends in the labor force post-COVID. Are different types of occupations becoming feminized in the post-COVID era? And if so, how do economists make sense of these shifts?

MA: Well, lucky you, Janelle, and lucky us because for this one, we actually reached out to one of the foremost experts in gender dynamics in the labor force, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin. And Claudia, if that sounds familiar, she actually won the Nobel in economics this year for her research on the gender pay gap. And to start off, Claudia said there are actually lots of examples where women enter professions and the wages stay the same. She gave pharmacists as one example. But Claudia also said there are examples of women entering occupations and wages going down. But she said it's often because of changes in technology rather than gender.

So, for example, think about secretaries. A long time ago in, like, the 1800s, secretaries were this all-male profession. But by the mid-1900s with changes in society and the economy, the secretarial workforce had become almost all female, and over time, wages for secretaries also dropped. So what explains this? Claudia says women were actually entering the profession at a time of major technological change, right? You had typewriters and other office technology becoming more common, which dramatically changed the nature of clerical work. And as we've reported on the show, new technology has this history of making workers more productive and also leading to declining wages for certain occupations because that new tech makes the work they used to do kind of obsolete.

WOODS: Right. So a history lesson to keep in mind when we think about generative AI at the moment.

MA: Yes, completely. Now, to the other part of Janelle's question, how are women doing in the post-pandemic workforce? Well, we got a couple data points. For instance, the labor force participation rate for women has bounced back towards pre-COVID levels, almost 58%. Now, as far as sweeping changes in particular occupations, Claudia says it is a little too early to know for sure. But like she said, big changes in occupations tend to come with big technological changes, too.


WOODS: All right. Well, let's go back to an old classic, which is labor unions - something we've covered a reasonable amount on THE INDICATOR.

JACOB FISHER: My name is Jacob Fisher (ph) from Horace, N.D. I was wondering if or when unions have had a net positive impact on our economy.

WOODS: So this is a huge question - are unions good or bad for the economy?

MA: Yeah.

WONG: Yeah, I'm really curious to see how are you going to do it in just a couple minutes, Darian.


WOODS: That's my challenge. I'll do my best. So it really depends where you look in the economy. So unions are generally great for the average unionized worker. They get paid 10- to 15% more than their nonunionized counterparts. But, you know, the average unionized worker is not the entire economy. We also have consumers, and we have investors. And on the investment front, you probably don't want your companies to get unionized. Two economists went through about four decades' worth of data, and they found that a vote to unionize is associated with a company shedding about 10% of its value.

WONG: Oh, interesting. So it's like when you get a union, there's value that gets transferred from the owners and the shareholders to the workers.

WOODS: Yes. And so the next question is, well, what about efficiency? So after you have that transfer of wealth to workers, are union-run companies more productive? This evidence is much less clear. On the one hand, unions can be this tool for resolving issues that many workers feel but aren't able to raise with their bosses effectively on their own. Like, maybe you've got summer heat reducing factory workers' productivity. The union could push for air conditioners.

MA: I mean, I would think that, like, air conditioning is a win-win, right?

WOODS: Yeah. Ideally, happier, more productive workers - that's the goal. But on the other hand, unions can work to stifle businesses from adopting innovation like automation that might threaten their members. This is one scenario that could play out. Plus, you've got strikes, and they can be costly to the wider economy. So my read of the evidence here is that sometimes there is a slight increase to unionized companies' productivity, sometimes a slight decrease. But overall, I don't think we should think that it has too much of an effect either way. So going back to the question - are unions good or bad for the economy? What we can say is they're generally good for workers, generally bad for investors and generally meh for productivity.

MA: I love that rubric. I feel like we should be - that could be, like, a new segment.

WONG: The good, the bad and the meh.


MA: By the way, most of the folks who work on this show are members of a union, SAG-AFTRA.

WOODS: And that wraps up this edition of Listener Questions. Thanks to everybody who wrote in.

WONG: If you have an econ question you'd like us to tackle, send us an email. We're at indicator@npr.org. That's indicator@npr.org.

MA: Today's show was produced by Julia Ritchey and Brittany Cronin with engineering from Cena Loffredo. It was fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. Our editor's Kate Concannon. And THE INDICATOR's a production of NPR.


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