Like the spooks at Langley, book publishers need expert intelligence to do their jobs well. A good publisher can predict what social causes, historical eras, and intellectual fads and fashions will be in vogue a few years down the road. This is critical since it usually takes a book two to three years to go from finished manuscript to your local Barnes & Noble's new non-fiction shelf.
Apparently three or four years ago publishers decided today's hot topic would be the "Decline of the Professional Middle Class." This explains why several popular new titles have just appeared wherein members of the self-styled creative class bellyache about not having it as good as their parents. Which begs the question, if these people are so creative why can't they find an innovative way to make a living? Invariably these books tell the familiar, hackneyed stories of bright, unmarried, thirty-something narcissists, expensively educated and enjoying the latest alternative lifestyle. She is either pregnant or a newly minted mother living in Manhattan or San Francisco, and is tenuously employed in the creative economy. She is resentful and unhappy, particularly in regard to her income level; she therefore writes a nonfiction book in which she blames her plight on the government, the economy, the Republicans, the capitalist system, her parents, her employer -- in short everyone but herself and her dubious life-choices. If she is lucky, she will earn enough in book sales to send her scrupulously spoiled toddler to the elite La Petite Academy.
Such an author will couch her book not as a memoir of one gal's dumb decisions, but as a sociological study of the worrisome cultural phenomenon she dubs the "decline of the professional middle class," which is sexier and more likely to grab the attention of NPR talk show hosts. Only the facts do not bear her out. Indeed since 1970, median household income has risen by 41%, according to a recent Pew Research study. What is more, nearly two-thirds (65%) of those surveyed said they have a higher standard of living than their parents had when their parents were their age. The bad news is that nearly eight-in-ten (79%) respondents say it is more difficult now than five years ago for the middle class to maintain its standard of living. So 65% are better off than their parents, but 79% say it's harder to be better off than five years ago.
Let's see, the culprit couldn't be "lifestyle inflation," could it? Lifestyle inflation, according to the Weekly Standard's Gary Andres, is the escalating worry about paying for more "stuff" -- cell phones, Internet access, car leases, flat screen TV's, etc. -- all those "essentials" that didn't exist in your parents' generation. Andres left off alimony, day care, private school tuition and, the real killer, credit card debt. But how is lifestyle inflation unique to the middle class? Every class has been affected by higher gas and food prices, higher insurance premiums, and higher college tuitions, and it is dishonest to imply that only Blue Collar Joe is tightening his belt.
But then writers like Nan Mooney would have nothing to whine about. Mooney is the author of (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents, and this notoriously whiny essay describing the trials of being single, broke, and pregnant at 37, and having to move back in with her Seattle-based parents. Perhaps the most grating thing about this bit of self-indulgent puling is how the author repeatedly attacks her aged parents -- the ones who have just allowed their 37-year-old slacker daughter to move back in with them. Mooney the ingrate shudders at the thought of raising her son "in an environment where stiff upper lips are mandatory, where his illegitimate arrival was first greeted with shock and shame, where emotions are swallowed and then fester," as though her parents should have celebrated their single, unemployed daughter's good fortune in getting knocked up. "Though my family has plenty of positive traits that I hope he'll inherit -- the loving of reading, for one -- when it comes down to it, I don't want to raise my son the way my parents raised me." Maybe she is afraid her child too will turn out to be a shallow, self-pitying slacker?
THERE ARE SEVERAL misleading facts at work here. The first is the curious notion that our parents had it easy when they were raising backseat-loads of screaming, fighting children in the '50s and '60s and '70s. Indeed, just because the author was born into privilege and grew up enjoying "a wonderful childhood -- private schools, soccer games, summers at the beach," she makes the amateurish assumption that her silver-spooned, idyllic childhood was standard for the times.
The source of Mooney's intense bitterness seems to be her decision to opt for a journalism career. Now you might expect that a journalist would take a few minutes to research average salaries, in which case you'd find that the starting salary in 2006, was $26,000, for a daily newspaper reporter, and $22,880, for a weekly newspaper reporter. This makes journalist the lowest paying of all "professional" jobs. (No wonder so many journalists are bitter.) The Mooneys of this world believe they should be handed meaningful, highly paid work as their aristocratic birthright. Only that isn't how the capitalist system works, which is one reason (among many) that they hate capitalism. Unless you are a David Remnick, a Tom Wolfe, or a Thomas Friedman meaningful and/or enjoyable work pays what the market bears, which is why teachers, journalists, nonprofit directors, nurses, legal aid attorneys and anyone else who majored in English, philosophy, or women's studies tend to make peanuts. Whether that is fair is beside the point. If Ms. Mooney wants to be assured a good income she could learn a trade like plumbing, dentistry, bond trading, corporate law or software engineering.
Mooney deftly finishes off her parents and their entire well-to-do generation in her final paragraph with a few expertly aimed words (coupled with a curious confession of parental negligence), that I am obligated to reprint in full:
Most importantly, I've let go of my biggest fear -- that, because Leo and I live with my parents, we will automatically become them. He has a buffer in place that I never had. Me. When my mother tries to yank away the frozen teething ring because she's convinced it will burn his cheeks, I'm there to hand it back. And someday in the future when my father gets judgmental about someone who's fat or lazy, I will be there with a lesson about compassion.
There you have it, today's alternative lifestyler, whiny, self-righteous, smugly moralistic and happy to bite the hand that feeds her and her child.