Agonies of the Twitterati

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, $24.00

The critics of modernity, going back at least to the 19th century, have told us that modern society is hurtling forward, its social ties unraveling behind it, its citizens left unhinged and bewildered. In recent decades, disintegration has remained a persistent image in popular social criticism, from Alvin Toffler's Future Shock and Philip Slater's The Pursuit of Loneliness (both published in 1970) to more current entrants such as Judith Warner's 2005 book Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. And now comes the sociologist Dalton Conley tapping into the same trope and, like many before him, presenting the crisis of contemporary society as bearing most sharply, indeed almost exclusively, on the privileged.

The trouble with this long tradition, and particularly with Conley's rendition of it, is that the evidence doesn't support the view that modernity has disoriented all groups in society, much less that it has peculiarly shaken up the privileged. Despite the pervasive image of a postmodern self, fragmented and fractured, the educated have found new ways to knit their lives together. It is the less educated, squeezed on every front, whose lives have become more insecure and unstable in both work and family life.

A professor at New York University, Conley has important articles and books to his credit, and much of his work deals critically with social inequality. His Being Black, Living in the Red is a substantial study of the sources and consequences of racial differences in wealth. The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why is an intriguing analysis of the limited role of genes and family background in accounting for achievement, highlighting instead the role of luck, accident, and the inability of parents with many children to provide opportunities to all of them.

In contrast to his earlier work, however, Elsewhere, U.S.A. is a disjointed dervish of a book that embodies its author's diagnosis of modern life. It is frenetic, disorganized, marred by leaps of logic and digressions galore. Its saving grace is that it challenges us to understand how contemporary social transformations affect the realms of personal life: love, friendships, the sense of self. But to grasp those connections, we have to pay attention to facts that Conley dismisses or ignores.

Amid a welter of kvetchy asides (Conley hates advertisements on movie screens, logos on T-shirts, and people who yak on their cell phones in public), Elsewhere, U.S.A. offers two big concepts to diagnose modern society's ills: the "elsewhere" society, and the "intravidual." "Mrs. and Mr. Elsewhere," workaholic professionals, always feel they should be somewhere else than where they currently are, and so they betray those around them as their mind races ahead to the next encounter, or they look around for a more desirable interaction. The intravidual is the reciprocal of this dissociated society: Rather than an integrated self, the modern person is internally fragmented.

Along with these two big concepts, Conley emphasizes four forces that drive contemporary social change. New technologies create a 24/7, sped-up work life that continuously intrudes on family time. Growing income inequality makes those near the top envious and insecure, leading them to work ever harder. Women's participation in paid work erodes community life, breaks down the boundary between work and leisure, and strains families. And the networked society permits an almost infinite number of selves -- virtual and actual -- as people participate in multiple communities of varying depth and reality, from the anonymous others who "recommend" films on Netflix, to friends of friends on Facebook, to the avatars in virtual social universes.

Conley is frank enough to acknowledge many inconvenient facts that deviate from this picture. For example, today's parents, despite dual careers, actually spend more time with their children than did those of the 1950s. Has residential mobility risen? No, it has decreased throughout the past century. Although divorce spiked after the 1960s, marriage has stabilized for the college-educated. And jobs "have actually gotten broader" as routine tasks are left to computers. (Conley might also have acknowledged that no one has shown that friendships mediated by online communication are any less real or gratifying than those of the pre-IM-Facebook-MySpace era.) But he then goes on as if his original assertions are self-evident: "Upper-class jet-setters may do business across the globe, but they are increasingly rooted in their home lives. The reason? Certainly not domestic bliss, as we well know." And that's it. Evidence that the marriages of the well-educated have become dramatically more stable -- and probably more blissful -- than those of the less educated is sloughed off with a flip aside.

Persistent weaknesses undercut the potential value of this book. It is peppered throughout with "perhaps" and "might," a self-conscious signal of its thin, fragmentary evidence. In an apologetic note, Conley says, "This is not social science as I practice it in my day job, replete with falsifiable hypotheses, experimental methods, and the like. This is social criticism, and as such the real test lies with you, dear reader: Does what I argued in these pages strike you as spot on? Could I have been spying on your life or the lives of folks you know and interact with daily? ... In short, do I make sense?"

The book's claim to "make sense" relies not on its scattershot evidence but on its ubiquitous "you" and "we." Since the book was written before the economic collapse, it doesn't contemplate plain-old economic distress as a problem. It does highlight growing economic inequality, but from the perspective of those at the top of the heap. Conley worries about such difficulties as "feeling guilty that as a professional I make so much more than the average McDonald's worker." The "you" addressed in Elsewhere, U.S.A. is enviably successful, probably divorced, juggling multiple careers and complex social networks, affluent enough to purchase every personal service, and constantly driven by anxieties about status and substance. In an information and service economy, where professionals often produce "intangibles" like psychotherapy or legal advice, "our own worth is therefore elusive, too. Anxiety about that worth is thus a rational response, as is our suspicion that we may be frauds." One is tempted to ask, "What do you mean by ?we,' Dalton?"

The jacket flap notes that Conley is not only a professor at NYU but also its acting dean for the social sciences, with appointments at its Wagner School of Public Service, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. He offers anecdotes about his professionally successful, globe-trotting wife and their two children. Whew! No wonder he claims, "Many Americans -- particularly those with children to take care of -- have morphed into a hyperactive people constantly shuttling between where we think we have to be (home? work? the party full of potential clients?) and where we think we should be (the country for a weekend with the kids? with this husband or a new one?)."

Even more irritating than Conley's projection of his life onto the reader's is his seeming determination to give the most dismal interpretation of the trends and putative individual motives he describes. The increase in homeownership, he speculates, may not only keep unhappy couples together but may cause anxiety because homeowners are responsible for repairs and upkeep ("when you rent, you don't have to think twice before pouring some glob down the drain") and homes become "potential profit (and loss) center[s]," eroding the boundary between work and home. His misanthropy sometimes reads like parody, as when he notes that "kids, after all, reflect our class status more than any other marker... No, it's not enough to be head of the company; you have to be that and show the world that you have invested enough hours at home that your kids get into Princeton."

Most disconcerting are various riffs -- some autobiographical -- that purportedly illustrate common dilemmas. He describes, for example, his "fraud anxiety" when his waiter at an upscale restaurant turns out to be an old college friend: "At the end of the meal we exchanged numbers, I left a whopping tip, and then decided I would never return to that restaurant despite the fact that the food was fabulous." While the anecdote supposedly illustrates the effects of "an increasingly unequal service economy," it seems cruel and idiosyncratic (especially since his friend, who had "congratulated me on the publication of my books" might easily read this one).

What would a more careful analysis of contemporary social changes reveal (leaving aside the current economic meltdown)? First, both globalization and technological change have made education the dominant line of cleavage in contemporary society, with effects not just on economic opportunity but on many other aspects of life. Second, the educated -- and here the yawning gap is between the approximately 25 percent of Americans with four-year college degrees and those with no more than a high school diploma -- marry much later and have fewer children and are much less likely to break up with a spouse and become single parents. Third, while families have increased their total work hours as they try to compensate for stagnant wages, the sense of a more harried family life among the educated probably comes from rising standards for how much nurturance children require -- concerns that have been stimulated by intensified competition for a limited number of college places. These nuanced realities would need to be the basis for any serious analysis of the way contemporary social forces impinge on family, child-rearing, and intimacy, but perhaps they lack the flamboyant drama that makes a best-seller.

Elsewhere, U.S.A. fails to analyze the sources of personal insecurity and family instability among the less educated, who have borne the true brunt of the growing "risk society," and it never addresses the policies that might soften inequality (greater public investments in education, especially higher education, would make sense here). It is true that modern technologies and relationships allow each member of a family to optimize his or her own pursuits (a sport or activity for each child, and each parent with a career, friends, and avocations), but it is not clear that this increase in choice undermines the intimacy, or even the commitment, that we seek from our personal relationships. It would be hard to develop a realistic, progressive social agenda to understand or remedy any of these problems from the pastiche offered in Elsewhere, U.S.A. If you want that understanding, look somewhere else.