Thursday, March 01, 2012

Charles Murray And Parenting

This is not necessary to my own postings, but I thought I would get it out of the way, as I think it interferes with thinking about the intersection of public policy and family creation.

I have only read excerpted portions of Murray's new book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, those that are in reviews and discussions of same.  I don't know if it is a strong idea in Murray or only in his reviewers, but the claim is made repeatedly that there was a social contract in America that persevered throughout our history until the 60's or so and then has weakened since then, for whatever reason:  young people, especially young men, were instructed that if they worked hard and did not live profligately or immorally, they would have enough in time to support a family, buy a house with a bit of yard, and have a decent life.  That America, with its loss of jobs, lack of respect for the working poor, inability to communicate these values or whatever, is no longer able to offer that contract with young men is seen as a great failing.

The idea has been circulating a great deal in these last years of recession:  We used to be able to offer guarantees to young people for good behavior.  Now we can't.  We've failed.

I think that is a gross misreading of history.  I don't think that is what Americans have primarily taught the young from 1609 - 1960, and even in its strongest years, my parents' era and the Greatest Generation, it is subtly but importantly different from the real teaching.

There is unquestionably some of this thinking throughout our history, showing up in our inspirational and patriotic literature.  But those are a special form of distilled communication, not the entirety of our values.  My reading is that we were instructed to work hard, keep our noses clean, and play by the rules, not because these were a guarantee of success, but because you could blow it at any time.  You could do something stupid and your career or health or marriage would go up in smoke.  You might get second or even third chances, but they were not unlimited, so you had best be careful.

I think the idea that we were taught to color in the lines because that is the sure way to success is a back-reading of the 60's generation onto 50's values.  The boomers confused the rules they were taught as children, because they were children, with the full panoply of adult understanding of values by their parents. 

The people who came through the Great Depression, WWII & Korea, polio and atomic weapons are unlikely to be people who believed much in guarantees in life.  More likely, they had hopes that if everything went well...

Well that's quite different then, isn't it, as Emily Litella used to say.

If the generation that believed in that contract most turns out to have believed in it only partly, then the whole enterprise is suspect, isn't it?  As I look back over Civil War correspondence and social agitation of a century ago and Puritan diaries I don't find that this was the American Dream at all.  Gatsby's green light, Twain's life on the Mississippi, Jack London - heck, even the Hardy Boys and Chip Hilton, are not about guarantee but aspiration and Best Chances.

I'm not letting the Greatest Generation off the hook entirely here:  I think they likely did oversell the idea of predictability and deserved reward, whistling against the wind with eyes averted when it came to the bad luck which might find us all.  They likely underemphasised misfortune, hoping to keep it at bay for their own children by denying it.

My generation, in turn, went one step worse.  We not only taught that keeping the rules were a guarantee, but that you could even break a few, so long as you mostly stayed in line, and still have success.

I read the analyses about jobs disappearing forever and the economy changing, and whole industries being outsourced or automated and I fear for my children and grandchildren.  Will they have work, or will jobs only go to the few in the future, with the many scrambling to carve out a poor existence?  But much of the fear may come from the false idea that there has been a system in place for 2-3 centuries that is now going away, and WHAT'LL WE DO? What will Emily do for a job to feed her family!? (Well, she's only four, so it's not all that odd that we can't slot her into a well-paying gig in our imaginations at the moment.)

It's nonsense.  Every American generation has had to adapt to a new economy, a new world, a new culture and reward system.  Every future has been an unknown, which looks utterly predictable and even inevitable when we look back on it.  The looking back is the illusion.

I worry that whatever advice I give may not apply to the rising generation, and may make difficult things sound easy, only to discourage the young parents who have a hard enough job anyway.  But I doubt I should hesitate on that basis.  It's nothing new.

Next up, as promised, I will talk about creating a family culture.

5 comments:

David said...

"jobs disappearing forever and the economy changing, and whole industries being outsourced or automated"...jobs have been disappearing for a long time, of course: weaving and spinning jobs in the early Industrial Revolution, sail-handling jobs with the coming of the steamship, theater-musician jobs with the introduction of talking pictures, etc etc. Obama talks about jobs eliminated by the ATM: I doubt he has the historical depth to know about the check-sorting jobs eliminated by check reader-sorters starting in the late 1950s.

I don't think we are facing some kind of technological discontinuity that is radically different in its impact from these prior changes: the difference is government mismanagement and the loss of societal self-confidence, much of which loss has been inflicted by academics and the media.

My most recent post: author appreciation: Fanny Kemble

Der Hahn said...

I see two fundamental differences pre and post (to pick a rather arbitrary year) 1970.

Number one, LBJ's 'Great Society' extension of FDR's emergency measures of the Depression era into formal continuous government support for people in economic difficulty.

Number two, the general consensus that upon becoming adults, women will pursue some sort of career for a number of years prior to optionally marrying and having children. (I notice that you make this assumption about Emily.)

I'll definitely agree with you that the idea of an economic guarantee for hard work isn’t supported by history. The sea change that has been that ‘aspiration and Best Chances’ are no longer looked on as positive values but as the mark of the chump who doesn’t know how ‘the system’ works.

With government support, being poor is no longer the hardship that it once was, and there are perverse incentives in the form of losing benefits before they can be fully replaced by income that make the support a soft trap that’s hard to escape.

Enabling women to substantially support themselves as young adults has removed the incentive they had to reward earnest strivers with their attention. Guys are noticing this, and are less likely to do the striving.

I’m not saying we should go back to ‘barefoot and pregnant’ as a model but recognizing that society has largely moved the cheese, and where it’s been moved to, is necessary.

Texan99 said...

My mother, father, and stepmother all were Depression Babies. They were optimistic and hard-working, but nothing could have been further from their minds than the idea that life was a sure shot. I agree with you: they were much more likely to consider that things were inherently dicey, so you'd better be prudent and frugal. So, for instance, you always, always, always had some kind of job, whatever you could get, no exceptions, even if you had to uproot yourself. You always saved. You (almost) never borrowed.

They were pleasantly surprised by the fair amount of material security they obtained late in their lives. Though they never had much income, I never saw them seriously worried about money. They'd lived through far worse and knew they were up to it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Der Hahn - your usual brilliance. Yes, I did assume that about Emily and didn't notice it, even though her mother is an at-home mom, and I am enormously glad of it. If you follow the further "Family Culture" posts, you may note that my son and his wife have had the full confidence to organise family culture differently, and I am (mostly) enormously proud of that. Even when he's wrong and has Hallowe'en and baby dedication instead of baptism.

T99 - good summary.

Jonathan said...

Every day is Halloween with Emily- she's in costume or "putting on a play/ballet/show/party" about 50% of the time now, I think.