Quick Review: my favorite novel to reread, The Winter of our Discontent

I have over the years read many “classic” works of literature. There is one to which I keep returning: The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. While it is not as widely read or discussed as his works like The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men (and I enjoy all three of these), it is the first one I think of when I look at my bookshelf of classics with the aim of rereading something. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Many key features of American life today are captured in this book. Steinbeck suggests as much with a single sentence on a page before the story begins: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of American today.” The narrative involves these plot points: the downfall of a once high-status family, looking for the next way to become wealthy and keep up with the Joneses, the main character tries to get ahead as a hardworking grocery store manager (suffering the indignity of a lower status job to help his family) while also pondering whether there are ways to shortcut the system (should he be skimming off the top? Should he turn in his boss?), and teenagers who want fame and fortune without a lot of hard work. In some ways, the story seems a bit unusual today: a white family with a long history in a community tries to regain their status. At the same time, the concerns motivating the family are very similar to those seeking fame today on social media or the many who are trying to weigh hard work versus getting ahead faster.
  2. Particularly compared to some of his other classic works, there is a good amount of humor in the main character Ethan Allen Hawley.  It may be bleak or black humor but Hawley has a way of using humor to help him navigate tough situations.
  3. The story involves connections to my sociological research. One of the key plot points is that local officials are looking to become wealthy from the development of land. In an older community, selling and developing land amidst suburbanization offers a new way to generate wealth as well as transform the character of the small town. This story is the one of numerous small communities outside major American cities from roughly the late 1800s through today. Similarly, local growth machines of politicians and business leaders can profit tremendously from these changes.
  4. I have no problem reading longer novels: I have read such texts like Les Miserables and War and Peace and enjoyed them. But, it does help that this Steinbeck text is a bit shorter. On the whole, Steinbeck was pretty good at working in shorter and longer mediums ranging.

Ultimately, in my mind the themes of The Winter of our Discontent still ring true for American society today. Delivered in a relatively concise format with some humor and tragedy, this is a worthwhile read over and over.

Suburban culture and voters summed up by Furbys, soccer moms, and two minivans

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made recent comments about who Democratic House members are and who are they are trying to appeal to. Her argument about these leaders being stuck in “90s politics” included this bit:

Their heyday was in the ’90s when kids had, like, Furbys, and soccer moms had, like, two vans. That’s not America anymore!

While a number of suburbanites and right-wing commentators have suggested her comments are off-base and are attacking a suburban way of life, she is both right and wrong:

  1. The American suburbs have changed. They are more non-white and poorer than they were in the 1990s. Ocasio-Cortez’s own life story is a testament to these changes. The suburbs today are much more diverse.
  2. She cites several material markers of suburban culture from the 1990s: Furbys and minivans. These were indeed real and to some degree are not as popular today. However, replace the minivan with the hipper SUV and there is little difference. (Additionally, she could have strengthened her case by adding McMansions to the 1990s mix since they arose as a term in this decade.)
  3. The “soccer moms” claim is the most interesting one to me. On one hand, it was political shorthand from the 1990s to describe a group that both parties wanted to target: women in the suburbs who drove their kids to soccer games and other activities. Those people still exist and, if anything, the number of suburban activities kids normally pursue has probably only increased. On the other hand, rarely do political candidates or prognosticators talk about soccer moms even as the current battleground is the middle suburbs. While Ocasio-Cortez has to think about her own potential constituents, there are still plenty of suburbanites who would be turned off by talk claiming that their time is over. Even if soccer moms is not a valid category (nor is NASCAR dads), suburban voters in their multiple strata are still worth courting.

To sum up, the majority of Americans still live in suburbs. Suburban communities and culture may have changed but the interests of suburbanites still matter in local, state, and national races.

Americans are conditioned and enabled to buy large homes

Findings regarding how Americans use the space in their homes may show they do not use all the space equally but evidence may not matter much. Americans want larger homes and the society and system is set up to push them towards this. Some of the factors involved:

-A consumption heavy culture where people enjoy shopping and buying items to signal their worth and for their own enjoyment. People want bigger homes like McMansions to impress others. Owners want a bigger home for all their stuff (and not necessarily for larger families).

-A lending industry that often requires relatively small down payments and repayments of a mortgage over three decades. Even if borrowers pay more in interest over time, they can afford a bigger home up front. Mortgages are socialized.

-A building industry that can make more money per house on selling a larger house. Building starter homes – a smaller house a couple might start with – or smaller single-family homes is a minor part of the industry.

-An emphasis on private family space as opposed to thriving public life on streets, urban public spaces, or third spaces. Additionally, Americans like their personal space.

An emphasis on suburban culture and spread-out settlement.

With these conditions, making a choice to have a smaller home is going against the grain. Perhaps this is why the tiny house movement is small.

 

Why Americans love suburbs: An introduction and seven parts

The suburbs are a key feature of American life. From the mid-1850s when Americans first started to conceive of daily life lived outside the outskirts of major cities to growing suburbanization in the 1920s to the post-World War II suburban boom, much of the country’s history has involved aspirations for suburban living and the moves of millions to the suburbs. A 2004 Census Bureau report about demographic trends in the twentieth century highlights the scale of this trend between 1910 and 2000:

Figure1-15UrbanizationPercentages'censr-4_pdf (application_pdf Object)' - www_census_gov_prod_2002pubs_censr-4

Much of this suburbanization occurred even as critics blasted suburbia for its mass-produced landscape, conformity, middle-class values, exclusion of non-whites, limited roles for women and teenagers, use of land and resources to the detriment of the environment, and poor imitations of nature.

And, still, Americans kept moving to the suburbs. Younger Americans want to move there even if they are having a hard time buying a house. Blacks who were once excluded from most suburbs are now moving there in large numbers. They may even like them.

This blog does not feature many intentional series of posts even though certain storylines have developed over eight years of thoughts. This is an exception intended to distill many earlier posts and scholarly research into one series. Each day for the next six days, I will discuss one reason Americans love the suburbs. While these reasons are difficult to rank, these are in rough rank order based on my own interpretation of the scholarly literature. No single reason can explain the suburbs on their own but some factors are more important than others.

Enjoy the series.

Production housing in the suburbs and what Americans want out of homes

An architect describes how production housing helps build the American suburbs:

Its scale is enormous. During the building boom before 2008, production housing—the name for builder-constructed residential developments—accounted for the vast majority of single-family homes. During that time, 1.8 million homes were started in a single month nationwide. Recent figures for January 2018, though down from prerecession highs, indicate 886,000 new starts. By some accounts, architects are responsible for designing no more than 2 percent of those homes. As the architect Duo Dickinson has observed, this means that the profession has largely ceded the best opportunity to be relevant and useful to ordinary people.

Not only does production housing dominate the market; consumers also like its products. The major appeal is affordability, with the housing industry producing a range of prices from modest to high-end. A family of four with a moderate middle-class income can put down $8,120, plus closing costs, to buy a home for $232,000 with three to four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage, and a piece of ground for a front and backyard. At the high end, buyers spending over $1 million—who could afford an architect if they wanted one—instead often choose big, builder-designed homes they see as bargains preferable to custom designs.

A second attraction is the quality of housing stock. People sometimes think of production homes as “builder-grade,” made carelessly and on the cheap. But American housing is better built now than ever before, a result of market competition, stricter building codes, and better materials. Basic construction is more solid, but the housing industry also is constantly upgrading the technology and sustainability of its products. As soon as the industry could see that producing energy-efficient homes had marketing advantages, green building started becoming increasingly widespread. These homes are not the ultimate in energy efficiency, but they are continuously improving. And because of the wide reach of production homes, those improvements impact many people.

A third appeal is that the housing industry answers consumers’ needs. Through its trade organizations, research institutes, and publications, it conducts constant research between buyer and seller. The feedback loop includes marketing, professional magazines, and trade shows. For instance, canvasing of consumers indicated that a living room adjacent to the front door, a holdover of the Victorian parlor, was far less important than having more space in a great room. Without reconfiguring the outline of the building—changing slab designs is costly—the front parlor was transformed into a smaller office or guest bedroom. This design makes sense, as the front door is typically not used for entry these days, but as a marker of domesticity. With marketing information at hand, builders can make immediate adjustments to their offerings. The expansion of walk-in closets, great spaces, and open kitchens correlate directly with consumers’ desires.

This list of positives sounds impressive: large-scale production of suburban housing means many homes can be built in many parts of the country at reasonable costs, at decent quality levels, and all while providing what buyers want. Relying on architects and others to design and build homes might push costs up, create more variability, and take more time. If efficiency and predictably for the homeowner is what Americans want, production building seems to be the way to go.

The rest of the article then goes on to discuss various critiques that could be leveled at suburban housing and development. Of course, efficiency and predictability have downsides both for individual homeowners and communities. And more broadly, we could ask about cultural values surrounding houses in the United States: what ends should they serve?

  1. Broadly accessible to the majority of Americans in settings that have broad appeal. This is what production building offers.
  2. Customized to the needs of individual owners and families rather than the limited number of models in #1.
  3. The design and size of homes should be subservient to community goals for land use and social life.
  4. Houses should provide significant return on investment.

Number three may just be the hardest sell as it places a house within a larger context and suggests it (and its owners) need to be part of what others are doing. Number two has the advantage of appealing to the individuality many Americans desire but this likely comes at some cost. Holding the goal of making suburban housing as available to as many people as possible (and you can make a good argument that this has been an American policy goal for roughly 100 years with ongoing socialized mortgages) leads to number one.

Number four is perhaps the most recent idea as it developed in recent decades with rising housing values amid financial uncertainties. This might fit best with number one: if Americans can get a good deal on a home, they can then expect more in return when they sell.

20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home

Occasionally, statistics about the United States stand out. Here is one I recently saw involving language as reported by the AP:

In the United States, one in five people age 5 and over speak a language other than English at home, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In immigrant-friendly Los Angeles, more than half of people do.

This is likely linked to relatively high levels of immigration in recent decades (and projections for more foreign-born residents in years to come). Pew summarizes the trend:

There were a record 43.2 million immigrants living in the U.S. in 2015, making up 13.4% of the nation’s population. This represents more than a fourfold increase since 1960, when only 9.7 million immigrants lived in the U.S., accounting for just 5.4% of the total U.S. population…

PewForeignBornPopulation

And by far, the language other than English spoken most at home is Spanish.

Speculation: more Americans choose to pursue unretirement to find meaning

Various data points show more Americans continuing to work even when do not need the money at retirement age:

Unretirement is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired…

Even more people might resume working if they could find attractive options. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen said. “About half said yes.”

Why go back to work? We hear endless warnings about Americans having failed to save enough, and the need for income does motivate some returning workers. But Dr. Maestas, using longitudinal data from the national Health and Retirement Study, has found that the decision to resume working doesn’t usually stem from unexpected financial problems or health expenses…

Researchers note that older workers have different needs. “Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older jobseekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work. They’re less concerned about benefits. They can think about broader things, like whether the work is meaningful and stimulating.”

One of the primary ways that adult Americans find meaning is in their jobs. Not only does a job help pay the bills, a job has become a reflection of who you are. Think of that normal question that leads off many an adult conversation: “What do you do?” With a shift away from manufacturing and manual labor jobs, service and white-collar jobs can encourage the idea that our personality and skills are intimately tied up with our profession.
Put this emphasis on an identity rooted in a job or career together with a declining engagement in civic groups and a mistrust in institutions. Americans are choosing to interact less with a variety of social groups and this means they have fewer opportunities to find an identity based in those organizations. We are told to be our own people.
Imagine a different kind of retirement than the one depicted in this article: older Americans finish a long working career and then find time to get involved with extended family life or various causes, secular and religious, where they can provide both expertise and labor. Where would many congregations or civic groups be without the contributions of those who are retired and now can devote some more time to the public good? What if the child care needs that many younger families face be met with grandparents who could consistently help? What if retired Americans could regularly mentor children and teenagers who would benefit from wise counsel and a listening ear? That is not to say there are not plenty of retirees who do these things; however, this approach involves a broader look at life satisfaction that goes beyond a paying job.