Monday, January 16, 2012

Conservatism And The Accordion Family

Salon has an interesting interview with Katherine Newman, a sociologist at John Hopkins University, regarding the phenomenon of “accordion families,” that is, families where young adults continue to live with their parents. This situation has provided a good deal of fodder both for comedies and for American conservatives seeking to place the blame for high youth unemployment and underemployment on a generation of supposedly lazy Peter Pans.
However, Alice Karekezi’s interview with Newman reveals some interesting problems with the “laziest generation” meme and in doing so destroys many of the arguments coming from conservatives regarding the actual nature of the problems facing families today. I found several of Newman’s insights particularly intriguing.
First, Newman points out that the bad economy has helped to fuel an increase in young people returning home to live with their parents. This is in stark contrast to the more prosperous post-war period, which is the reference point for most baby boomers.
Second, the period of post-war affluence was historically unusual. Poorer families have always been more likely to live together in order to pool resources and many middle-class people in the pre-World War II period also lived  in accordion families. 
Third, the post-war period of affluence was marked by many government programs, such as the G.I. Bill, that heavily aided in independent family formation. I would also add that high rates of unionization (which peaked at over a quarter of the private sector workforce in the United States during the 1950s) and increased direct hiring by all levels of government also likely made it easier to start a family earlier.
Fourth, the developed countries with the smallest number of accordion families might be located in Scandinavia and this situation is likely due to strong state intervention in the economy, including a robust welfare state. Interestingly, Newman also points out that a potential downside to increased independence may be more loneliness and a feeling of familial detachment, as evidenced in some of the responses by Nordic people who see Mediterranean families (notorious for raising Mama’s Boys) as closer and more affectionate.
After reading the interview, I came away with the impression that if conservatives really wanted to see more people becoming independent and forming families earlier and living with their parents for shorter periods of time, they would adopt left-wing economic policies of the kind that helped young people become independent in the United States during the post-war era and which still apparently do the same trick in Scandinavia today.  
Unfortunately, as Newman discussed in her interview, many people forget the role that governments and labor unions played in bringing mass affluence to Americans and others in the post-war period. To some degree this is the product of the understandable tendency to see all of one’s accomplishments in terms of individual initiative alone, as if humans lived in a kind of vacuum. But it is interesting that while conservatives dream of a return to the time of Leave It To Beaver, they fail to recognize that the post-war era was not a very good period for the partisans of laissez-faire capitalism.
Furthermore, it should be noted that American conservatism is itself an odd beast. You would think that folks who always go on about the evils of statism would be happy to see families working together to deal with hard times instead of seeking support from the government.  Barring the real instances of lazy, irresponsible children, accordion families can be seen as models of private self-help. However, as Christopher Lasch noted in a powerful 1987 article in Tikkun, American conservatism is really an intense form of individualism. Lasch writes:
“Not only do conservatives have no understanding of modern capitalism, they have a distorted understanding of the “traditional values” they claim to defend. The virtues they want to revive are the pioneer virtues: rugged individualism, boosterism, rapacity, a sentimental deference to women, and a willingness to resort to force. These values are “traditional” only in the sense that they are celebrated in the traditional myth of the Wild West and embodied in the Western hero, the prototypical American lurking in the background, often in the very foreground, of conservative ideology. In their implications and inner meaning, these individualist values are themselves profoundly anti-traditional. They are the values of the man on the make, in flight from his ancestors, from the family claim, from everything that ties him down and limits his freedom of movement.  What is traditional about the rejection of tradition, continuity, and rootedness?  A conservatism that sides with the forces of restless mobility is a false conservatism.”
I would add that a conservatism that does not believe in the existence of society is never going to be able to craft a sensible family policy. It does not matter whether one thinks the Swedes or the Italians or some other people have the right idea about family life. Rugged individualism melts away all normal concepts of family life, which is perhaps why American conservatism has such a rabid, mean-spirited edge. It rejects both the familial solidarity of the Latin model and the social democratic paternalism of the Nordic countries. Instead, American conservatism often views Man as a kind of a solitary beast, roaming about the Earth in a grim war for survival.


  1. Very interesting post, John. It does seem that each model comes with its own tradeoffs; I'm not sure as I'm entirely a fan of all aspects of the Nordic (or Japanese!) social-corporatist model, as one may argue that the government's taking-on of activities once considered familial obligations results in some fairly serious demographic distortions (the Nordic countries as well as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are suffering from declining birth rates and an aging population which will be supported only with extreme difficulty by the future labour force), but one must indeed admire the efficacy and egalitarianism of their economies.

    In the meanwhile, it seems that the United States is suffering the same kind of decay in its social fabric, whilst the government is still allowing the poor to fall through the cracks. It would appear that we desperately need a re-evaluation of some of our national myths (such as, as Christopher Lasch notes, the Western 'Man Without a Name').

  2. Thank you for the comment, Matthew.

    I agree with you on the demographic problems in Scandinavia and Japan and the role of the State in taking on family obligations. I actually prefer the Meditteranean model of familial obligation mixed with a commitment to full employment to help ensure that young people are productive and not idle.

    Otherwise, I have no problem with multigenerational households, although I understand many people in the West find them to be strange.