Reasons to pause when judging other parents

A few months ago my sister came to visit with her then 8-month-old son Peter.  It was our first time spending an extended amount of time together as parents and over the course of the weekend it became clear that we approach the job differently.

Most of the differences were trivial.  The first night at dinner she fed Peter pureed vegetables and a spread of those specially formulated air-puffed snacks that Gerber sells just for babies.  I’d always thought those snacks were a little fussy—just one more way that marketers have wedged themselves into our lives—and I was surprised that my sister, who I consider to have good judgment and values broadly in-line with my own, had fallen for them.

Overall my sister is more active and deliberate as a parent while I am more inclined to let things play out as they will, and we both probably think the other goes too far in the wrong direction.  She gives Peter a bath every night.  We give Jay and Wally baths, well…less often than that.  She (like Caroline) was a little shocked that I let Jay wander so far out into the driveway without keeping a closer eye on him.  I was annoyed when, after one of Wally’s exploding poops dirtied the bouncy seat, she wouldn’t let Peter sit in that seat again until I put its cover in the wash.

So, little things like that, which in the context of a close sibling relationship can seem bigger than they are.

It’s no secret, of course, that parenting inspires all sorts of heated arguments and it makes sense that it should, given how high the stakes are for each of us individually and for society as a whole.

Still, it never feels good to sit in judgment of another person (or at least it doesn’t feel good for long).  So, when I find myself persistently judging someone else’s parenting I try to remind myself of the one thing I am more sure of than any other conclusions I might draw about why other people do what they do: just about all parents love their kids more than they love anything else in the world.  This reminder doesn’t obviate the need to have serious discussions about how best to raise kids—but it does soften the tone in which those discussions take place.

Which brings to me to one of the most routinely criticized groups of parents out there: Fathers who aren’t very involved in their kids’ lives.

They’ve been in the news a lot recently, thanks to the release of data showing that more than half of all babies born to women under-30 are born out of wedlock, and to the storm generated by Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which details the widening cultural gap between upper- and lower-class white Americans.

They’ve also been a preferred punching bag of the Republican Party for decades.  Typical of the anger they inspire is this excerpt from The Broken Hearth, written by the prominent moralist William Bennett: “It is unmarried fathers who are missing in record numbers, who impregnate women and selfishly flee…Abandoning alike those who they have taken as sexual partners, and whose lives they have created, they…traduce generations yet to come, and disgrace their very manhood.”

There are a lot of assumptions operating in Bennett’s full-throated denunciation.  The first one I noticed is that he doesn’t seem to agree with what I said above, that all parents love their children.  He replaces that assumption with the specter of the hit-and-run man who loses interest in his partner and in the downstream consequences of his actions as soon as he rolls over in bed.  This is certainly a frightening idea but it doesn’t square with experience: How many men have you ever met who can muster complete disregard for their own children?  I personally have never met any and that, combined with the fact that I don’t know any of the men that Bennett purports to judge (just as I imagine he doesn’t personally know any of them, either) makes me hesitate to think that I understand their situations completely.

The second assumption in Bennett’s denunciation is the idea that unmarried fathers “flee.”  I’m currently working on a story about Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin who studies family formation patterns in low-income communities.  Her current work focuses on children born to unmarried couples.  She finds that fathers in these situations are much more involved than stereotype would have it.

Consider, for example, that the vast majority (83%) of out of wedlock pregnancies occur to couples who are in a relationship at the time of conception, and that half of those couples are living together at the time the child is born.  This certainly belies the notion that all or even most out-of-wedlock births are the product of callous sexuality.

Furthermore, 80% of low-income mothers who have nonmarital births report that their child’s father was supportive throughout their pregnancies and 60% of the relationships that produce a nonmarital birth are still intact by the time of the child’s first birthday.  Again, this runs counter to the stereotype that unmarried low-income men “flee” their families the first chance they get.

But it is true that over time fathers in these circumstances do become less involved with their kids.  Edin finds that 60% of the relationships that produced the nonmarital birth have ended by the child’s 5th birthday—and that only a quarter of those fathers still continue to see their children “several times a week” once they no longer live with their kids at home.

There is no doubt that the current state of marriage and childbearing among low-income Americans is not good.  It’s not good for us as a country and it’s not what low-income Americans, who overwhelmingly report that they aspire to get married and to build nuclear families, want for themselves.

So what do we do about this?  I don’t know.  But I do know that the conversation goes very differently depending on the assumptions you make at the outset.  On the one hand, if you assume that the men involved have no interest in actually being fathers there’s not much you can do besides scream at them (or ignore them).  On the other hand, if you assume that their basics aspirations and values are not categorically different than your own- that they love their children just like I love mine and you love yours- then that at least gives you a place to start.

And with that, I want to share a powerful story from one of Edin’s research projects.  It’s a portrait of a poor, African-American man who had children outside of marriage.  It upended the simple narratives I tell myself about why people in his position do what they do.

Apple’s Story, from Claiming Fatherhood by Kathryn Edin, et al.

Apple, a twenty-six-year-old African American father, was proud that he was “in love and everything” with Gloria, the mother of his three children (ages eleven, nine, and five), during the eight and a half years the two were together.  At first, they saw each other only casually, but within eight months she was pregnant with his daughter Vanessa. Apple, who had to repeat both seventh and eighth grade, had dropped out of school by this point and worked full-time as a drug dealer, but stopped two months shy of Vanessa’s birth. His determination to “go straight” was solidified when the baby was born, and as there was an out- standing warrant for his arrest, he decided that the right thing to do was to turn himself in. He and Gloria fought violently over this decision, which she saw as a desertion, and the altercation landed him in the emergency room from a knife wound in the cheek.

When Apple returned home after serving his sentence in a juvenile facility, he moved with Gloria and Vanessa, now nine months old, into a North Philadelphia row house that Gloria inherited from her grandmother. Everything was “lovey dovey” for a brief period of time—long enough for the conception and birth of a second child. During this time Apple worked twelve-hour days as a sandwich maker at a convenience store. During a store robbery he was injured with a gun- shot wound and, because he had no insurance, was left with a large debt to the hospital. There was also some trouble in the relationship—Gloria admitted that she had been seeing another man and was pregnant by him, though she termi- nated the pregnancy—but she also soon conceived a third child by Apple.

Around the time this third child was born, Gloria became a Muslim and prohibited any drinking in the couple’s home. Things went well for a while, but a fourth child was then born that looked nothing like Apple. For a while, Apple convinced himself that he was the child’s father, but then Apple was caught failing to comply with the drinking prohibition. Another violent fight ensued and Gloria revealed the truth: Apple was not the fourth baby’s father. During this fight, a broken bottle used as a weapon caused serious wounds to his hands and arms that landed him in the emergency room again. Several weeks later, the two had yet another altercation on a trip to the Jersey shore with the kids in Gloria’s car. This time, Gloria called the police and accused Apple of carjacking. Apple’s bail was set at $35,000, and since he did not know anyone with enough money to pay a bail bondsman, he spent two weeks in jail before the charges were dropped.

Because of these two weeks in jail, Apple lost both jobs. Desperate for money, he decided to sell marijuana and was caught and incarcerated briefly, as this was his first adult conviction. Meanwhile, Gloria abruptly married a fellow Muslim, which devastated Apple, who still insists that Gloria was his “first love.” Upon his release, Apple moved in with his mother and began searching for work, finally securing a full-time job making sandwiches at a hoagie shop. He also found a new girlfriend, Jennifer, who had a job and her own apartment nearby. Apple moved in with Jennifer, and fourteen months later they conceived a child, who was born with a heart condition that qualified her for a disability payment of just over $1,000 a month. Jennifer quit her job to take care of the child full-time. With the $200 or more Apple cleared each week from the job plus the disability benefits, the two could cover their living expenses.

Meanwhile, Gloria, who left her husband and began to collect welfare, named Apple as the father of the oldest three children. Given Gloria’s history, his family suggested that he demand a blood test, but Apple decided against it. “I just never wanted to get the blood work just in case one of the [children wasn’t mine]. I would not have felt good about that. Then depression would have set in. So I guess I waived my rights.” Meanwhile, once Apple became involved with Jennifer, any direct contact between Gloria and Apple seemed to result in violent fighting. “I wish I could see all four, you know. I pray . . . we can work it out.  But [Gloria], she just talk vicious to me like, threatens me.” Thus, he visits his children only rarely, though his daughter, the oldest, calls him daily. In fact, the last time he saw them was at a Father’s Day barbecue Gloria threw three months prior, a party to which Jennifer and the baby, Jade, were not invited.

Apple could barely contain his joy over life with his baby daughter. He felt his relationship with Jennifer, who was staying home full time with the baby, was “airtight,” and he gloried in his relationship with Jade, the eight-month-old.  Despite his troubles with Gloria, Apple said, “I am glad I had four children, regardless [of whether] I’m with their mother or whatever. I’m not a rich daddy or the best daddy, but I’m still entitled, still have four children.”

Related content from Growing Sideways

More on why low-income fathers leave but don’t flee

Priming effects

Yesterday afternoon we met Caroline at the curb outside her office, same as always.  I got out to run and she took over the driver’s seat.  Before we parted ways we had our standard debrief: I told her which of the boys had napped (both of them); I updated her on dinner (the sauce was on the stove, she just needed to add the shrimp); and I gave her quick summaries of the boys’ moods—Wally was more fragile than usual and Jay had been a trial since waking up from his nap.

After they’d driven off I started to doubt whether I should have included that last line, about Jay being a trial.  It occurred to me that by telling Caroline that Jay had been difficult with me, maybe I’d increased the odds that he was going to be difficult with her.

I imagined a scenario.  Caroline, Jay and Wally arrive home. Caroline tells Jay he needs to wash his hands and Jay runs away.  If Caroline knew nothing about Jay’s behavior earlier in the day, maybe she’d treat his running away as a trifling incident and exercise forbearance.  But instead, since I’d told her that he’d been a pill all afternoon, maybe she’d see his running away as a serial transgression and come down on him harder, reigniting a vicious cycle that would define the entire time they had together.

One of the first rules of parenting with a partner is transparency: Caroline and I share information about the boys because we trust each other to make judicious use of it and we know it’s important that we work as a team.  So, transparency is king.

That said, Caroline and I have talked about the ways in which we influence each other’s attitudes towards the boys.  At the most general level, we have our narratives about who the boys are—Jay is spirited and willful; Wally is happy and content—and we reinforce those narratives to each other.  While there is truth to those narratives, there’s also a degree to which they become self-fulfilling: Having latched onto the idea that Jay is spirited, we’re more likely to notice (and to share with each other) instances of behavior that confirm our narrative about Jay than instances of behavior that disprove it (an example of what psychologists call “confirmation bias”).

There’s no doubt that Caroline and I each influence how the other interacts with the boys.  On Saturday morning Caroline got up early with Jay and Wally.  A couple hours later I emerged from the sleep cave.  Caroline told me that the morning had been fine, but that she was a little frustrated with Jay.  I’m pretty sure that her admission of frustration primed me to get frustrated ten minutes later when Jay dawdled on the way up to his room to get dressed (which would be consistent with research into priming effects, which has shown, among other things, that when you expose people to rude words prior to an interview you increase the likelihood that they’ll behave rudely in that interview).

Like I said, I don’t think Caroline and I should edit how we talk with each other about the boys.  But it does seem important that we pay attention to how we shape each other’s attitudes towards Jay and Wally, and how those attitudes feedback into Jay and Wally’s behavior.

The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom

Yesterday I wrote about how the concept of “friction”—things that slow us down and lead to inefficiency—can be applied to raising kids. I argued that while Jay and Wally create a lot of friction in my life, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

As it turns out, I’m not the first person to think about friction and family life. In fact, Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have thought about it more than I have and have come to a very different conclusion than I did yesterday.  In their family, the reduction of friction is one of the highest goals.

Stevenson and Wolfers are economists.  They were profiled two weeks ago in The New York Times, which is where I learned about them.  She is 40, he is 39.  They are partnered but unmarried and they have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Matilda.  They are also big figures in the sub-field of economics known putatively as “lovenomics”—the study of the economic tradeoffs and happiness calculations involved with life decisions like getting married and having kids.

The theme of the article was how Stevenson and Wolfers, who are both on the faculty at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, use their academic research to guide their family life.  They think purposefully about the tradeoffs between different activities and they try to strike the maximal balance between leisure, money, professional achievement, and all the other good things in life.

To achieve this balance they hire people to do many of the tasks they don’t want to do themselves.  As the Times article put it: “If you’re relatively affluent, as they are, they recommend outsourcing child care and domestic chores so you can spend your time on more leisure or economically worthwhile pursuits. That’s what they do.” Stevenson and Wolfers hire people to do their cleaning, their grocery shopping, and to drive them to and from work.  They also have a nanny who takes care of Matilda from 8am-7pm every weekday.

Most of the choices they make are typical for people in their tax bracket and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them as such.  I have plenty of friends who have more money than time in their lives and I know that that for them, hiring people to help around the house just makes life more manageable.  What’s more unusual about Stevenson and Wolfers is the philosophy behind their choices, particularly in the context of parenting.

In a story in The Washington Post that ran a few days after the Times profile, Stevenson said she tries to “maximize the quality time” she spends with Matilda and to minimize the amount of time she and Wolfers spend on the tedious, boring, and frustrating sides of parenting.  In practice, this means that they have their nanny feed Matilda breakfast, get her dressed, pack her diaper bag, etc.  And because they outsource so much of the drudgery of parenting, they can spend more of the time they do have with Matilda on fun activities: coloring, singing, dancing.

This seems perfectly reasonable and I understand the need for childcare help when you have a demanding job. Yet as I read about Wolfers and Stevenson a queasy feeling started to well in my stomach.  On a gut level, something about an efficiency-maximizing approach to family life seemed wrong to me.  I don’t like boredom or frustration either, but instinctively it seems to me that it’s important to have at least a measure of them in your life.  When I thought about why that might be, the answer I kept coming back to was friction.

As I wrote yesterday, friction makes it easier to steer.  But it occurred to me last night that that’s only half it’s value in the context of family life.  Because not only does friction make it possible to steer—it also makes it possible to feel.

Over the weekend I wrote about how I spent my birthday taking care of Jay and Wally.  The day featured long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of frustration—just the daily brew that Wolfers and Stevenson try to avoid.  But the slowness of the day—the absence of efficiency and top-shelf stimulation—left its own kind of quiet impression.

The late-novelist David Foster Wallace, who would have turned 50 today, also thought that friction is a necessary condition for feeling.  Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011, a little more than two years after he took his own life; it is set in an IRS processing center in Peoria, Illinois and it’s about boredom.  Wallace left a note with the manuscript that began to explain why he thought boredom was so important:

Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Instant bliss in every atom.

I don’t know if real awareness lies on the other side of boredom or if it’s part and parcel to the feeling—and bliss is a little far-out as a description for what I experienced on my birthday.  But I do agree with Wallace that in order to really feel alive you need to be willing to let some friction creep into your life.

American culture emphasizes making life easier, smoother, less painful, more efficient. But if you go too far in that direction you end up as a body sailing blissfully through a vacuum.  Friction lets you feel life, experience its texture, take its shape.  In this sense there’s no better source of friction than raising kids.

Related Content from Growing Sideways:

The value of friction in everyday life, part 1: Kid make it easier to steer

A new version of the American Dream

The value of friction in everyday life, part 1: Kids make it easier to steer

I’ve read several articles in the last week that have set my mind racing.  The first was the series of essays by Walter Russell Mead that served as the basis for my recent post “A new version of the American Dream.”  The second was an essay by a psychologist at Swarthmore named Barry Schwartz that appeared in The New York Times last Thursday.  Schwartz wrote about “friction” in the economy—forces that slow commerce and lead to inefficiency.  He argued that while capitalism pursues efficiency at all costs, as a society it helps sometimes to have some friction.

Over the weekend it occurred to me that Schwartz’s argument is relevant to family life, too–that his definition of friction is a nice way of explaining the real value of the constraints and commitments, boredom, frustration, and fatigue that come with raising kids.

Here, according to Schwartz, are two examples of friction in economic life: The first is a company with a bloated payroll; the second is a mortgage lender that takes longer than it should to process loan applications.  In both these cases business is not getting done as fast or as cheaply as it could be and the free market doesn’t let stragglers hang around; it blindly wrings inefficiency out of the economy.  If one company is bloated, a leaner one will take its business; if one bank is slow to process mortgage applications, prospective homebuyers will go somewhere else for a loan.

This is mostly a good thing, Schwartz says.  He argues, “It is important to understand that increased efficiency is the only way a society’s standard of living will improve.”  A good example of greater efficiency leading to a higher standard of living is the way agriculture has changed over the last 100 years.  In 1900, in the last years of era of the family farm, food costs accounted for 40 percent of the average family’s household budget; today, thanks to the efficiencies of agro-conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto that have replaced the family farm, food accounts for only eight percent of the average family’s budget.  This leaves a lot of money left over for luxury and leisure.

So less friction (and more efficiency) is good.  And if you believe, the men running for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s the only good.  But Schwartz agrues that while too much efficiency may never be bad for a company, it can create all sorts of problems for a society.

He gives several examples of the perils of too little friction.  They range from easy access to credit cards, which leads people to buy all sorts of stuff they don’t not really want, to the popularity of home equity loans which (until recently) allowed homeowners to live beyond their means.  Too much efficiency was at the root of the subprime collapse, too.  Banks made too many loans too fast; they thought they understood the risks they were assuming but in reality they didn’t have a clue; and our whole economic system was already out of control by the time most people realized something was wrong.

Schwartz uses the metaphor of a speeding car to dramatize why friction can be a good thing: “The forces of friction that slow us down are an expensive annoyance. But when we’re driving a car, we know where we’re going and we’re in control. Fast is good, though even here, a little bit of friction can forestall disaster when you encounter an icy road.”

So now to kids and friction.  Jay and Wally slow down just about everything I do in life.  It takes fifteen extra minutes to get out the door when I’m bringing them along; childcare responsibilities mean I have about half as much time to write as I did before Jay was born; and when a friend emailed recently proposing we meet in Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, he might as well have been proposing we meet on the moon, so utterly infeasible was the whole idea.

A lot of the time I chafe against the friction that Jay and Wally create: I wish I could get out the door faster; I wish I had more time to write; I really wish I could climb that mountain. But at the same time, and as I’ve written in the past, I think there’s a lot of value in the friction kids provide.  Caroline and I can’t turn our lives on a dime, which means we have to think harder about where we want to go and proceed with more commitment once we get there.

Because I can’t quit working to travel the way I did when I was 25, I’ve had to be more thoughtful about the type of work I do and how it fits with the other things I value in life. And in a few years the boys will start school and we’ll be even more rooted in a place than we are now.  Sometimes it’s nice to have the option to move if you don’t like where you are; more often I find it’s useful to have pressure—friction—forcing me to make the best of it wherever I am.

The downside of kid-induced-friction, of course, is that it’s a lot harder to change course once you start down the wrong path.  It’s harder to extricate from a bad marriage when kids are involved and it’s a lot easier to change jobs when you don’t have to worry about the financial responsibility of taking care of a family.  But so far I’ve found that having kids has been more helpful in the sense of giving me a point in the distance to aim for than harmful in the sense of rolling towards a tree and being unable to turn.

Related Content from Growing Sideways:

The value of friction in everyday life, part 2: Embracing boredom

A new version of the American Dream

These are the things I try not to do within an hour of going to bed: drink caffeine; eat sugar; use the Internet; fight with Caroline.  To that list of late-evening prohibitions let me add a fifth—no reading articles by Walter Russell Mead.  I made that mistake yesterday.  His three-part series on restoring the American Dream set my mind racing and it wasn’t until nearly 2am that I finally got the horses back in the barn.  What follows is a brief recap of Mead’s argument about how the American Dream is changing and some thoughts about how I see a new version of the American Dream playing out in my own life.

According to Mead the first iteration of the American Dream was the dream of the individual family farm.  This was Thomas Jefferson’s version of the American Dream.  For two centuries the family farm was the organizing unit of American social and economic life; it defined how family members interacted with each other; it provided Americans with food, shelter and the material necessities of life; it was the backdrop against which people lived out the American version of the good life.

But the dream of the family farm began to founder in the late-19th century.  Sweeping geopolitical forces were to blame: the best farm land was already taken meaning new generations of Americans had to settle for marginal tracts in places like Oklahoma that were never meant to sustain agriculture; and improvements in agricultural production led to a glut of corn and wheat, and thus lower prices for farmers when they brought their crops to market.  The world changed, fast, and it left the family farm behind.

It took almost half-a-century for a new version of the American Dream to develop.  There was a lot of political and cultural turmoil in the intervening years, just like there’s a lot of political and cultural turmoil now.  People feared that the end of family farming meant the end of the American way of life.  But then a second version of the American Dream emerged, and it promised even greater prosperity and greater freedom than the family farm had before it.  Mead calls this second version the dream of the “suburban homestead.”

This is a dream that most of us recognize because it was vibrant in our lifetimes and has only recently begun to fade.  It was the dream of Leave it to Beaver: Dad worked, mom stayed home, the kids went to school, and life was awash in inexpensive, mass-produced goods (canned vegetables! washing machines!) that made life freer and easier than it had ever been before.

But now the dream of the suburban homestead has begun to come apart.  The forces unraveling it are as sweeping and unstoppable as the forces that sundered the dream of the family farm a century earlier.  For one, the good land is all taken (the nicest suburbs have become astronomically expensive; Caroline laments that there’s no way we could ever afford to buy a house in the suburban-DC neighborhood where she grew up).  And for two, the jobs that supported the suburban dream on a national scale are disappearing—either outsourced overseas or automated out of existence.  So if the suburban dream is dead, too, the question is—what takes its place?

Caroline and I have thought a lot about this over the last five years, though not on the grand scale that Mead thinks about.  For us the question has been more personal, as we’ve tried to figure out what kind of lives we want for our family and ourselves.  We’ve tried to use two principles to guide the big lifestyle choices we’ve had to make: We want control over our time and we want our lives to feel coherent.  I’ll talk about each of those in turn.

First—control over our own time.  For me, this has meant freelancing instead of working for a company.  In my twenties I had a few traditional jobs though none of them lasted very long.  On a gut level I had a hard time swallowing the idea that someone else would tell me where I needed to be from 9am-6pm five days a week, or would dictate how many days I could take off to spend with my family around Christmas.  I might have been willing to accept these constraints if I’d found work that I was incredibly excited to do, but I never did.  And at the same time I’d been given enough opportunity in life to make it feasible for me to strike out on my own.

As is often the case the price of time has been money.  I make a lot less than most graduates of the Harvard Class of 2003.  The key realization for me, though, was that all the extra dollars I would have made if I’d become a lawyer were not worth the sacrifice in personal freedom I would have had to make to earn those dollars.  And this, I think, is a calculation that rings true for many Americans who feel like they have enough money and enough stuff but not enough freedom in their daily lives to spend their time the way they want to.  (Of course, there are also many Americans on the lower-end of the class scale for whom this doesn’t ring true at all; contra Charles Murray, they’d eagerly trade time for the opportunity to work hard at a job that paid well.)

Second—coherence.  One of the things I like least about the suburban ideal is the way it divides life into discrete roles and identities.  Work and home are separate spheres.  Men and women perform separate roles.  Kids race from school to Cub Scouts to soccer practice.  There is a whole lot of moving parts, but it’s not necessarily the case that they all pull in the same direction or all reflect the same underlying values.

I don’t like the idea of my “work” persona and my “home” persona being distinct.  It feels discordant to me that I’d go off to a job and spend my whole day with one group of people, thinking and acting in one particular kind of way, and then I’d go home and be with a different group of people, thinking and acting in a different kind of way.  I want the cohesiveness of feeling that all the parts of my life are integrated; I want the coherence of feeling like I’m completely and fully myself in every part of my day. (I guess you could say that, in a sense, what I’m after is a 21st-century version of the family farm.)

To some extent this prioritization of time and coherence is idiosyncratic; these values reflect my particular disposition and the particular family culture that Caroline and I have put together, and certainly the lives we’ve crafted for ourselves have only been possible because of the above-average rates of education and opportunity we’ve received.  But at the same time it seems clear to me that our choices have been shaped by broader cultural currents; that they reflect a changing idea of what the American Dream looks like in practice.

It makes sense that each iteration of the American Dream would be shaped in response to the one that came before it.  The suburban ideal was desirable in large part because it was not the family farm.  Blue- and white-collar jobs freed people from having to toil on the land from dawn to dusk.  The consumer products revolution freed people from having to provide every material necessity by their own hands.  Safeguards like union jobs, pensions, Medicaid, Medicare—the whole social safety net extending from employers to the federal government—meant that families were no longer one false step away from calamity.

But progress had its price.  Once you get past the surface warts of the suburban ideal (the McMansions, the SUVs, etc.) it seems clear to me that the real price of the suburban dream was paid in time and coherence.  The coherent life of the family farm was broken into discrete suburban roles and identities that divided work from home and men from women; and the suburban economy instantiated all sorts of restrictions on how people spend their time: the time-clock, the 9-5, two weeks paid vacation, and (most banefully of all) the daily commute, which researchers routinely identify as the feature of modern life most anathema to personal happiness.

Last night I talked with Caroline about these ideas and when I got to the end she said, “So, what is it?  What is the third American Dream?”  I don’t know, of course, and Mead says he doesn’t know either.  The suburban ideal would have been hard to imagine in 1890 and it’s just as hard to picture what the iconic American lifestyle will look like sixty years from now.

But if I had to guess, I’d venture that the Third American Dream will be an urban dream—where physical proximity allows work life, home life, and social life to be more coherently integrated—and it will be an information technology dream that gives people more flexibility about when and where they work and more freedom in general about how they spend their time.

Links to Walter Russell Mead’s essays on the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part I: The Crisis of the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part II: Recasting the Dream

Beyond Blue Part III: The Power of Infostructure