Photographing suburban McMansions around the world

See pictures of large suburban homes around the world as well as read insights about the developments from the photographer:

After six years of travel to five different continents, Adolfsson has published Suburbia Gone Wild, a new photography book that goes in and around the model homes of wealthy cul-de-sacs in cities like Bangalore, Moscow, and Cairo. His discoveries reveal a world that continues to homogenize around emerging clusters of wealth aspiring to a particularly American brand of suburban life.

It wasn’t always easy for Adolfsson to capture these oddly beautiful shots of perfectly arranged kitchen pantries and opulent living rooms. His method was to photograph the model homes inside these developments, hiring locals to pretend to be a significant other who would then distract sales reps as he snuck off to take pictures around the house…

This copy+paste behavior is a result of America’s cultural dominance over the past five decades, exported through soap operas, movies, and magazines. I also think that the “lifestyle” fills a cultural gap as many of these countries didn’t have an upper middle class until recently and haven’t established a strong identity for this growing class yet…

I came to the realization that many of the residents living in these suburbs share a common identity with residents living in similar communities around the world, whether it’s Bangkok, Cairo, Moscow or São Paulo, than they do with their fellow countrymen living outside the gates of these suburbs. I think this is the beginning of a huge global shift where national identity is becoming less relevant.

Another cultural export of the United States of America.

I like the connection to a global/Americanized/suburbanized mentality. At the same time, this is only available to an upper-income section of global society so this is a limited group. It could get a lot more interesting if these people from around the world started gathering and interacting on a more consistent basis. Perhaps this is already happening in tourist spots, conferences, places of consumption (from retail to media), or corporate offices.

There would be a lot of room for research on how this global/suburban identity then meshes with more local identities. Critics have argued that suburbs within America have their own culture, full of everything from conformity to individualism (depending on which critic you listen to over the last six decades). But, the United States is now a suburban nation so the suburban identity is quite common and is expressed all over the place from movies to TV to books to politics. It would be a lot different in countries without an established suburban ethos.

How social class might affect a family’s view of its pet

Some sociologists have examined the relationship between people and their pets. Indeed, there is even an American Sociological Association section titled  “Animals and Society” (read their rationale here).  Here are the thoughts of two sociologists on this dynamic between pets and their owners:

Sociologist Elizabeth Terrien discovered in a study of dog owners that people from rural backgrounds view dogs more as guardians that should be kept outside. More affluent people tend to see their pets more as children and describe them in terms such as “child,” “companion” or “partner in crime.”

Terrien found that those with Latino backgrounds were more likely to use the term “protector” or “toy” to describe their pet’s role.

Carey also refers to sociologist David Blouin’s three main categories of pet owners:

Dominionists,” who view pets as useful but replaceable helpers. Many of the people in this category in Blouin’s study were immigrants from rural areas.

Humanists,” who pamper their pet much like a human child, let their pets sleep in their beds or leave money in their will.

Protectionists,” who have strong opinions about how animals should be treated and decide what they think is “best” for an animal (untying a dog tethered to a tree, for instance, or determining when a dog should be put down).

I wonder if we could map these ideas on top of Annette Lareau’s ideas about class and parenting styles in Unequal Childhoods. Lareau suggests that lower-class parents practice the accomplishment of natural growth, a more independent view of children and not encouraging children to challenge external authorities, where middle- and upper-class parents practice concerted cultivation where children are encouraged to speak up and parents give children the activities and cultural tools to get ahead. These categories seem to line up with the idea of these two sociologists: pets are more replaceable and functional for lower-class people (“dominionists”) while pets take are much closer to family members in more wealthy families (“humanists” and “protectionists”).

I also wonder if there is work comparing the treatment of children in families to treatment of pets. What might the impact of this be on children?

Additionally, it sounds like there could be some value judgment regarding which of the three approaches is most appropriate. How do “humanists” and “protectionists” view “dominionists”?

Generation R(ecession)

This isn’t the first article or commentator to suggest that the current generation of roughly 20-somethings will be profoundly affected by the current economic malaise. But sociologist Maria Kafelas provides some insights into what she terms Generation R:

[Generation R] were born between 1980 and 1990. They’re the children of the baby boomers…

Working class kids said to us, “Listen, we’re going to be the first generation of Americans to do worse than our parents.” One young woman said, “I just feel burned. My friends who didn’t go to college, they don’t have debt and they’re making more an hour than I am.”…

[A working class girl who went to college] actually said, “I don’t even know why I spent the money.” The middle class kids were saying, “It’s very tough, I am filled with anxiety. I can’t sleep at night, but I still believe in a college degree. I’m just going to have to work harder and it’s going to take longer.” And those elite kids said, “Is there really a recession? It’s more like — it’s just harder for me to get a job.” And they’re sitting out this recession in a lot of ways…

They now talk a great deal about not wasting money; conspicuous consumption they say has gone out of fashion. And they don’t want to be seen as throwing money around when their families are eating into their resources to keep them afloat, etc.

If these characteristics do mark this current generation, their beliefs and practices would affect a number of institutions: higher education (and the education system in general), the economy (with more measured consumption practices), the relationship between generations (perhaps being the first generation in a while whose life is not markedly better), and perhaps more (government – for letting this all happen, financial institutions – for helping to make this happen, etc.).

But these comments from Kefalas also highlight the class differences that are exacerbated in these difficult economic times. For the elite, not a whole lot has changed. The middle class may still believe in college and the value of hard work. But it is the working and lower classes that might really have a lack of hope as the ways to move up, such as a college education, seem to be further out of reach.

Limited American meritocracy and the importance of a college education

A foundational cultural value in America is that residents should have equal opportunities and that if people work hard and grasp these opportunities, they will be able to get ahead. But academics have suggested for decades that while this might sound good, real chances to move up the social ladder are more limited. Some recent data suggests this is indeed the case: compared to other industrialized nations, being born into a poor American family is more limiting.

Among children born into low-income households, more than two-thirds grow up to earn a below-average income, and only 6% make it all the way up the ladder into the affluent top one-fifth of income earners, according to a study by economists at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

We think of America as a land of opportunity, but other countries appear to offer more upward mobility. Children born into poverty in Canada, Britain, Germany or France have a statistically better chance of reaching the top than poor kids do in the United States.

What’s gone wrong? Thanks to globalization, the economy is producing high-income jobs for the educated and low-income jobs for the uneducated — but few middle-income jobs for workers with high school diplomas…And Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argues that thanks partly to the rise of two-income households, intermarriage between rich and poor has declined, choking off another historical upward path for the underprivileged.

“We’re becoming two societies, two Americas,” Putnam told me recently. “There’s a deepening class divide that shows up in many places. It’s not just a matter of income. Education is becoming the key discriminant in American life. Family structure is part of it too.”

Increasingly, college-educated Americans live in a different country from those who never made it out of high school.

This article only mentions a small bit of data and it would be interesting to see the mobility rates for all Americans.

But these findings present Americans with a contradiction: we talk about social mobility but reality is a lot harsher. What often happens is that certain cases of people who “made it” are trumpeted and held up as examples when really those people were exceptions rather than the rule.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers lays this out in a simple way: those born into more privileged positions accumulate advantages over time. One of these advantages in America today is a college education. For many in the middle and upper classes, college is a foregone conclusion: a young child is expected to accomplish this goal. But to get to this point, middle and upper class children have more financial resources, better schools, better health and nutrition, parental support (“concerted cultivation”), and more.

This gap between the college educated and those with less than a college education is an important one to watch in the coming decades.

How much income one needs to be considered rich

Americans tend to think of themselves as middle-class, even wealthy and poor Americans who objectively are in the upper or lower ranks of income. So this question occasionally arises: how much income does one have to be earn to be considered “rich”?

The current case in the news:

Todd Henderson feels like he’s barely making ends meet. He’s a law professor at the University of Chicago. His wife’s a doctor at the school’s hospital. Their combined income exceeds $250,000. They have a nice house, a nanny, kids in private school, a retirement account and a lawn guy…

“A quick look at our family budget, which I will happily share with the White House, will show him that, like many Americans, we are just getting by despite seeming to be rich. We aren’t,” Henderson wrote on the blog “Truth on the Market.”

While Henderson meant for his posting to encourage a debate about taxes, it turned into a public flogging, characterizing him as out of touch or arrogant. More broadly, it has provoked a discussion about what it means to be rich, particularly in an economy where many people are suffering.

Henderson’s no longer part of the conversation, though. The firestorm of online hostility compelled him to delete his essay and declare on Tuesday that he will no longer blog. He declined to comment Thursday. Even his wife is angry at him, he acknowledged in a follow-up blog post.

A few thoughts on this:

1. The Chicago Tribune article cites someone saying earning $250,000 a year is in the top 3 percent of American incomes.

2. At the same time, incomes can vary in their purchasing power in different areas. A $150,000 income living in Manhattan can lead to different things than living with that income in Atlanta.

3. Is this a microcosm of how Internet “discussion” works? It seems like a perfect storm of bad economic times plus widespread attention leads to a bad outcome for having made this argument.

4. Perhaps the real issue is whether people making $250,000 feel like they can live the lifestyle that is associated with such income levels. If they feel like they have to pinch pennies or a lot of the money is taken out in taxes, they might not “feel rich.” From those with lower incomes, this seems absurd: just think what could be done with that money. But having certain incomes leads to certain ideas about what that level of income looks like or how it is to be experienced.

UPDATE 9/24/10 3:36 PM: A piece from the Wall Street Journal fits in with my idea about the income and lifestyle not matching up. The overall idea seems to be that people who make this kind of money may not think they have to or don’t want to reign in their spending.

Job outlook: either high-paying or low-paying, few in between

Perhaps adding to the bleak economic outlook, some economists are suggesting that future jobs will fall into two categories: high-paying or low-paying with few jobs in the middle.

This would have implications for the size of different classes within the United States. To have a high-paying job, employees will generally need higher-education or specialized degrees. Having a service job means struggling to make ends meet. In this scenario, what kinds of industries or sectors might provide more middle-class jobs?