The Stats Guy: How data can challenge our long-held stereotypes

Data allows us to test assumptions. Stereotypes are just that, assumptions, writes our stats expert Simon Kuestenmacher.

Data allows us to test assumptions. Stereotypes are just that, assumptions, writes our stats expert Simon Kuestenmacher. Photo: TND

A good friend of mine once suggested jokingly that he was always glad when a stereotype turned out to be true as this made life terribly easy to navigate.

I always thought that was a rather insightful joke. We live in a complex world and simple stereotypes seldom portray the full truth (my Italian friends assure me that Italians’ universal love for pasta is such an example).

Sometimes stereotypes are plain wrong. Sometimes they are gross simplifications of the truth. Sometimes they are simply outdated.

Today we will look at three examples of demographic stereotypes that we must abandon after sighting the data.

Let’s start with the stereotype of the ‘Lazy Mexican’. It’s a much-used trope. A sombrero-wearing man is cuddled up in his poncho enjoying a long nap for his siesta – and, while we are at it, we might as well give him a bottle of tequila too. Simple narrative; instead of working, the ‘Lazy Mexican’ just naps the day away.

No nation in the world works harder than Mexico – and they have the stats to prove it. Photo: Getty

This is an excellent example of a stereotype being completely off the mark and we have the data to prove it. The OECD counts the actual hours worked in a country and divides this figure by the average number of people in employment.

Based on the ‘Lazy Mexican’ trope, we would expect workers in Mexico to work relatively few hours in comparison to other countries. As the chart shows, the exact opposite is the case. Of the 43 OECD countries, nobody works longer hours than the Mexicans.

At the other end of this chart, we must update another stereotype. Germans (full disclosure: I am German) work 27 per cent fewer hours than the OECD average (1332 compared to 1687). The stereotype of the ‘hard-working German’ is put in question here. Let’s look at another OECD dataset to see if the Germans are at least efficient.

The data also has some surprising revelations about German productivity. Photo: Getty

As we rank countries by GDP created per hour worked, we see that Germany isn’t the most efficient OECD nation (that honour goes to the Irish due to being a tax haven within Europe – but that’s a story for another column).

Germany is only the 12th most-efficient OECD nation. Germans are neither the hardest, nor the most efficient workers on the planet. Breaks my Teutonic heart, but that’s what the data suggests.

As an aside, the reason Mexico isn’t doing well in the productivity ranking is that almost 40 per cent of the workforce is employed in agriculture and manufacturing. These two sectors don’t produce nearly as high a GDP as the service sector.

Another popular trope is the ‘Drunk Russian’. Vodka is famously consumed in high frequencies, and you might remember footage of a drunk and dancing President Boris Yeltsin from the 1990s. I am mentioning this example not because Russians are secret teetotallers but because trends and rankings change.

According to the World Health Organisation, as late as 2000 Russian alcohol consumption was only surpassed by Romanians – making Russia the second-highest consumer of the 188 countries listed in the WHO dataset.

Alcohol consumption in Russia has fallen dramatically in recent years. Photo: Getty

Things changed during the last two decades though. As global alcohol consumption went down on a per capita basis, Russian consumption fell dramatically from 16 litres of pure alcohol per person to only 10.5 litres. Russians and Aussies now consume the same amount of alcohol.

If you like stereotypes, you will be pleased to learn that the gender split of alcohol consumption stayed the same. In Russia (and Australia) men drink almost four times as much alcohol as women. As of 2019, Russia ranked 33rd in the alcohol consumption per capita data. Ugandans, French, Portuguese, and Kiwis all consume more alcohol than our Russian friends.

The lesson here is that things change. At the very least, you must regularly update your stereotypes. This is not just true for demographic data.

How cost-efficient do you think solar panels are, for example? You probably have many terribly outdated datasets in your head that are misshaping your worldview. Information needs to be updated. Don’t rely on research you’ve done a few years ago.

Shifts in data aren’t always as obvious as the Mexican and Russian examples.

Take the Japanese approach towards migration for example. Japan long upheld a restrictive migration strategy to keep Japan as Japanese as possible. Big demographic shifts forced Japan to rethink their policies.

Japan’s migrant population is still only a small percentage of the population. Photo: Getty

Japan isn’t suddenly turning into a migration nation like Australia, but it has markedly been opening up. As a shrinking and rapidly ageing nation, Japan desperately needs workers.

For a while it was enough to change social norms (women traditionally didn’t return to the workforce once they married) and double down on robotics to counter that trend. As demographics caught up, the nation needed to add more foreign workers.

Today close to three million foreigners call Japan home. That’s a huge increase on previous years, but foreigners still make up less than 3 per cent of the population (in Australia that share is about ten times as high).

Letting go of the Japanese stereotype doesn’t require us to assume the opposite of the stereotypical assumption is true. Rather, we need to soften our view, we need to understand that change often takes place gradually, without dramatic and sudden adjustments.

Somehow, somewhere, we picked up these assumptions of what Mexicans, what Russians and what Japanese migration policy might all be like. It’s always worth trying to honestly test your own assumptions with the help of real hard data.

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