Monday, November 23, 2020

The Bad Decision Handbook

I finished reading Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall, Jessi Streib's qualitative study of how children enter downwardly mobile econimic trajectories. It is based on in-depth interviews conducted as part of the "National Survey of Youth and Religion".

The book is badly written, and it's analytical framework is weak and repetitive. Streib wants to explain downward mobility as a function of two factors:

  • Weakness in "inherited resources", here listed as money and academic and institutional knowledge.

  • Identity, falling into one of seven categories, and itself often a function of resource weakness.

The work virtually ignores any consideration of individual intelligence or those qualities of the Five Factor Model that most predict academic and professional success: emotional stability and contientiousness. Instead, Streib relies entirely on the interviewees' own account of their backgrounds and interior lives. This leads to some pretty hilarious incongruities. My personal favorite is the account of "Virginia", introduced in the chapter on the "stay-at-home mother" identity:

Virginia was raised in such a family [that emphasized traditional gender roles] and in a conservative space -- in a variety of red states and by secular parents who spent their formative years as members of conservative religions. Her father earned a high income, but from Virginia's perspective, he was rarely home. When he was home, Virginia tried to learn about the workforce from him, but he did not engage. Virginia explained: "I really wish that he was more vocal, that he would talk about more things . . . ." Virginia was much closer to her mothther, but she could not play this role in Virginia's life. Having dropped out of college to beocme a stay-at-home mom, Virginia's mother never entered the professional workforce or gained the knowledge associated with it.

We then read about Virginia's efforts to navigate the course of her teenage years:

Virginia . . . did not use school to prepare for college and work. Instead, she considered school a holding zone and a romantic zone. Regarding the former, she saw school as the process of "sitting in a classroom learning stuff I don't care about." At the same time, she met her first boyfiriend in high school and enjoyed speding time with him at school. Yet, after Virginia's boyfriend slept with her best friend while Virginia was passed out, drunk, on the other side of the room, Virginia returned to seeing school as a holding zone.

So . . . it's pretty clear there are other problems here than just Virginia's stay-at-home mother identity.

To give Streib some partial credit, I will allow that, however worthwhile being a stay-at-home mother is as a lifestyle choice for those women to whom the opportunity is offered, as a career plan it may be poorly suited as a method of "class reproduction". As Streib points out, most professional class people marry other professional class people, and the social space in which a non-college-educated woman (for instance) can be courted by a college-educated professional man is much smaller than it perhaps once was.

But it might also be true that stay-at-home mother is defined by more than just resource weaknesses. It may be that the track requires its own set of resource strengths. For instance, it may mean not getting blind drunk at parties, not having slutty girlfriends, not dating men living the kind of lives -- or living such a life yourself -- where no-strings-attached sex is A Thing. There may be something about Virginia's background -- having adopted a "conservative" life-goal without having herself internalized any of the conservative values that would support such an ambition -- that is especially likely to end poorly.

Virginia's were not the only bad decisions made by Streib's collection of interviewees, perhaps not even the worst. The subjects adopting the "rebel" identify, and those described as "explorers", by which Streib means those who maintain several competing identities, often including "rebel", were especially self-destructive in their choices. Others' were merely sad: for instance, the decision by a perfectly capable and energetic young woman to try to become a writer for television shows without deep family connections in that industry. It is the counter-example of these stories, and not Streib's analysis, in which the real strength of the book lies.

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