The invention of another age
October 16, 2007
Is there any branch of science more frustrating than sociology? To me, it’s hard to imagine one. It wins this title because it seems to deal with themes that resonate with our experiences (happiness, love, aging, etc.), but bases its analyses and conclusions on grounds utterly unsuited to producing accurate reflections on human needs and desires. Thus, its work (at least in the popular form in which I digest it) seems to follow a common form: “Hey, haven’t you noticed that [a media-generated subgrouping of Americans] are [some simple human emotion], as evidenced by these [dubiously correlated surveys], and their problems are demonstrably worse than those in [some previous era]?” Turns out, Gen-Xers are moodier than they were in Dickensian times, and experts have the sleep-habit, shoe-size, and sex-satisfaction data to prove it.
It’s not the pablum that annoys me; that’s what you’re supposed to get in newspapers. I object to pablum that somehow seems to pick up on things large groups of people are feeling, but utterly misdirects them as to their causes and prescribes simplistic fixes to the alleged problems.
Take this article, for example, by the unfailingly asinine David Brooks. He’s trying to make sense of something a lot of people his age (all right, all right, Baby Boomers) are worried about: when the hell will their kids grow up? He observes that people in their 20s aren’t getting married as early as they used to, aren’t settling into long-term careers, and don’t feel like going to church. They feel things to be impermanent, and everywhere he looks, from Facebook to knitting circles, he sees them inhabiting “a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering.” Moreover, although he doesnâ€™t say it, our culture expects and encourages this behavior with statements like: At 21, your primary relationship should be with yourself.â€
Now, never mind Brooksâ€™s patronizing tone towards people in their 20s, or the fact that the very generation he addresses has made the structures that produce their children’s stunted growth. These are annoying, but they’re not as egregious as Brooks’s insistence on adding to his arbitrary four stages of human existence: thanks to him, people my age are now in the odyssey years. “Yeah, you know, it kind of makes sense: kids seem to be on this wandering journey these days, so let’s appropriate this classical reference as a label and slap it on the 20s to make another decade where people aren’t fully responsible members of society. “
Of course, he’s picking up on a popular narrative, one that no doubt sounds familiar to a lot of us. I certainly feel damned uncertain about my economic future and prospects for what is termed success. I don’t quite feel like an adult all the time; my status in the world is far from established. And I’m married and go to church regularlyâ€”imagine how tough the rest of the folks my age have it! (Fortunately, it looks as though, by virtue of his children, Michael’s got security and happiness all wrapped up.)
In all seriousness, I agree with the broad criticisms underlying his generalizations. I think marriage is usually more conducive to human happiness than casual sex or living together, The Onion notwithstanding; I think having a secure source of a moderate income is usually more conducive to human happiness than working insane hours for immoderate pay; I think there’s significant evidence that having kids at younger ages is more conducive to human health (and potentially happiness) than putting them off till age 35. These statements are true about human beings in general; it takes a certain kind of inquiry to be able to find them out, and a very careful stance towards their generality to allow them to remain true, since each particular demands its own analysis and might not fit the general principle. Sociology, though, says: “are people happier when they get married early? Let’s ask 10,000 of them and then try it again in 40 years.” In itself, that’s fine. If you want to find out the results of surveys, great. We can note that trends appear in data; that people are living longer, working more hours, and getting married at certain ages. But of course no one surveys people just to get the results of surveys: they want to use the results to understand and shape the world. Thus, people are always going to try to take sociology’s results, draw normative conclusions, and apply them to people.
So what? The country’s huge, somehow we’ve got to govern it, this is the best way we’ve got to tell what’s going on for the largest number of people. I may grant this proposition when it comes to economics, which certainly has a potent effect on perceived happiness; technocracy’s got an okay track record, I guess. But what I can’t abide is people like Brooks who say, “here are the survey results, let’s all understand ourselves and alter our lives based on the narrative I’ve dreamt up to make sense of them.” Guys like him are mixing up the subject matter, using the tools adapted to data to get people to manipulate the means of individual happiness. Conclusions drawn from data, which are inherently broad and imprecise, become a tool to solve fundamental and, for each human being, particular human questions.
Even that wouldn’t be so bad if the advice weren’t just distracting to the real work at hand. What good does it do parents (or twenty-somethings) to think of a given decade as an odyssey? You can’t look at the actual metaphor for guidance: we didn’t just fight a battle and there’s no definite end (age 30 is home?). Moreover, Odysseus’s story isn’t one of aging, really; he’s already more grown up when he starts than todayâ€™s Americans and Europeans are at age 20. So what do the odyssey years become, if there’s no definite goal at their end? A tale of meandering and suffering? Thanks, but we already knew that!
And who says that this alleged breakdown of structures making a world of uncertainty is even bad? Sociology canâ€™t! Just because the popular conception of American life forty years ago included kids, marriage at age 22, and a steady job till retirement doesnâ€™t mean that having that set of definitions for success was good. I suspect, however, that itâ€™s probably better to listen to the accreted wisdom of human habits, and thus to have fairly well defined expectations of young people, manhood, and womanhood. But sociology canâ€™t tell me that this is better or worse. Brooks of course simply sidesteps the questionâ€”even though heâ€™s ostensibly conservativeâ€”and says: â€œboy, people sure will wonder at the creation of the odyssey years.â€ Thus, plenty of peopleâ€”this was one of the most popular articles in the Times last weekâ€”will take this new diagnosis as a palliative for their condition and be directed away from wondering for themselves if instability and unfettered individualism is actually a good way to live. Work such as this abets every harmful aspect of the current condition of people in their 20s, gives them none of the tools to understand it, and stifles questioning of the condition’s goodness.