Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety
by Dalton Conley
(Pantheon, 221 pages, $24)
Dalton Conley is best known as the author of Honky, a memoir about his bohemian, artist parents who expressed their solidarity with the poor by raising their children in the ghetto. That is, until its violence and poverty became too real and the family fled to an artists' commune. In his latest work, Conley, now a professor of social science at NYU, visits another world entirely in an attempt to trace modern economic man's journey from Mayberry, RFD to Elsewhere, USA, the latter a depraved place of "all-consuming work" where nothing tangible is made.
Conley isn't writing about most Americans, but the important 25 percent -- at least important to him: those 30-to-60-somethings who live in urban areas, have college degrees, check their email every thirty seconds, and who have two perfect, French-speaking, piano-playing, ballet-dancing children.
Forget the inner journey. Forget Jung. Here is modern man in search of a wi-fi connection. Conley suggests two forces have combined to create today's hi-tech hell: 24/7 technologies which turn everywhere into an office at which you are always on-call, and the growing income gap, which forces us to work even harder to keep up. Finally, Conley unleashes an incongruous and unexpected attack on the phenomenon of mothers in the workplace, which he claims erodes family life and blurs what's left of the border between work and home.
A field trip to Google headquarters (the "Googleplex") in Mountain View, California, shows how the corporation has perfected that blur. Google is perhaps the best example of a company that has "integrated [employees'] professional, social, and, at times, family lives -- all while working crazy hours," noted BusinessWeek. In fact, Google employees have no reason to go home; everything they could want is available in-house, including free dinners, massages, and laundry service. The 2009 workplace compares favorably to the 1950s housewife. Of course even geeks have to sleep, so company towns with worker housing are making a comeback, only the inhabitants won't be coal miners, but unmarried computer programmers.
It is Conley's thesis that these affluent, overworked knowledge workers are the most susceptible to the ill-effects of modernity. Where once it was the American worker's dream to earn enough so that he could work less, today the opposite holds. In today's Through-the-Looking-Glass business world, leisure has become a luxury only the poor can afford. A $250 an hour lawyer will simply lose too much income by taking time off.
WEALTHY SUBURBANITES WHO work too much are not going to win many sympathy votes. That aside, there seems to be a basic flaw in Conley's poor-little-rich-girl thesis. The blueprint commonly runs something like this: the affluent work to bring about social change. Social change often has tragic consequences for the poor and uneducated, while the affluent use their wealth and connections to minimize the ill-effects of change on their cohort. One example of this is divorce law. Conley admits that marriage has stabilized for the college educated, while the poor and their children continue to suffer the consequences of wealthy intellectuals' demands for easy, no-blame divorce and more lifestyle choices. The drug culture is another example. The glorification of drugs by 1960s college kids and the 1970s entertainment industry meant high times for affluent kids, but for the poor it meant drug wars, prostitution, family dissolution and jail.
It is likely the anxiety and alienation now affecting the affluent will trickle down to the poor, with the usual devastating consequences. The disappearing border between work/home, the 24/7 workday and the loss of leisure will doubtless hit the poor harder. After claiming women's entry into the workplace helped blur home/work boundaries, Conley notes affluent parents spend more time with their kids than previous generations. The same doesn't apply for the less affluent.
After bemoaning the loss of Mayberry and the ill-effects of too many moms in the workplace, Conley must have felt the need to re-establish his liberal bona fides by decrying the income gap, which is really an attack on the idea of meritocracy. It's here where Conley is least interesting, unless one longs to hear the usual complaints about how smart people tend to marry smart people and are thus open to more opportunities.
Conley mourns not only the loss of his grandparents' traditional way of life (front porch swings, card games with the neighbors, and retirement at 55), but he also misses his hippie parents' navel gazing and spiritual journeys to find one's unique path. Mind you, he doesn't miss them enough to change his frenetic, New York City lifestyle. Just enough to complain about their loss for 200 pages.
As a corrective to this overdose of tales of upward striving, I recommend Conley's far more entertaining Honky. This story of voluntary downward mobility features characters equally absurd, but as an example of liberalism taken to its extreme then quickly abandoned, it's a fine cautionary tale.
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