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Conley (Honky) makes a prescient analysis of how technology and free markets have transformed American life, comparing the mid-20th century American with the present-day incarnation. These are two very different animals-one compartmentalized and motivated by the traditional American ethos of success, and the other a psychological hybrid of impulses connected to work, pleasure, materialism and consumption. The results of this brilliant and, at times, chilling comparison, are manifest not only on these pages but in real life. "Cheap and easy credit," he writes, "has been a major reason why the United States recently dipped into negative savings for the first time since the great depression." Conley examines how, technology has altered how Americans earn and spend money, playing out the behaviors characteristic of "late capitalism," or simply an evolving economic system that, by attaching a price to virtually everything from child rearing to dating, has helped devalue people, the work they do and the material goods they desire. A sociological mirror, this book is equal parts cautionary tale, exercise in contemporary anthropology and a spiritual and emotional audit of the 21st century American. (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
“Lower Broadway is New Wave,” said Alexandra Conley, 11 years old, as she and a group of her friends who live in the neighborhood headed for the back of the store.
“It’s in,” piped Johanna Jackson, 11.
“What’s really good about this neighborhood,” said Jessica Nudel, 11, as she cleared her throat to silence the shuffling of a group of boys who joined them, “what’s really good, is that it used to be all burned out, you know, but now you can be a kid and walk anywhere without being afraid.”
“Gosh, is she smart,” said a boy in a blue parka. At that, Jessica, Johanna and Alexandra all rolled their eyes, jumped up and down like hot popcorn and fell upon the nearest stack of 45’s.
Today, though New York City is way safer than it was in 1984, I could not imagine letting my ten-year-old daughter walk the four blocks to school by herself, let alone hang out in Tower Records (now defunct, the building snapped up by my employer, New York University—but that’s a different, if related story about the transformation of the urban economy). She would hardly have time, anyway. As I write this, she is busy with ice-skating lessons. Yesterday was piano, and the day before was French. This is all piled on top of homework, online math tutorials, and other after-school activities. Not to mention being dragged along to academic lectures, on business trips, and to playdates where the parents want to get to know one another, so they thrust unfamiliar kids (roughly the same age) into a room together as the grown-ups sip coffee. And besides, my children’s own friends are much more in flux. Whereas Alexandra is still best friends with the very same Johanna mentioned in the 1984 article, my daughter’s best friend just moved to Tokyo with her mother, who landed a huge promotion there (leaving her brother and father behind in New York—and, no, they are not getting divorced). It may be a crazy arrangement, but it is by no means unique. My own sister’s husband just got relocated to Italy for nine months—not enough time for her to learn the language and start up a new career with two young children, so she is staying in the United States. And my wife’s boss and his spouse split their time between New York, where he works, and Israel, where she does.
Leisure? The “good life”? What are those? Work is the central aspect of our lives. We are lucky that it is fulfilling work—work that we will probably continue to do until we are no longer capable—but it is, unlike that of my parents, all-consuming work. There is always an e-mail to answer, a paper or memo to read, and a lecture to give or receive. Success in today’s professional world doesn’t mean retiring at fifty to play golf in Florida, it means working more and more hours as you move up a towering ladder of economic opportunity (and inequality). Socializing usually revolves around professional colleagues. Not necessarily—or especially—people we actually work with in our own offices. No, most socializing involves weak, workrelated ties: folks who are in the same field but just swinging through town for a conference or meeting—potential clients, former mentors, prospective employees. You never know from where the next big project—that great idea—is going to come from in today’s “knowledge economy.”
In our marriage, nobody cooks. We generally eat take-out, when I am in charge, or raw food, when my wife is. Whereas, even in my parents’ relatively progressive marriage, my mother was the primary caregiver (except for Sundays when my father would take us to Aqueduct Racetrack), in our arrangement it is often more likely that I will be the one to pick up the kids thanks to my wife’s more hectic travel schedule. Ours is a constant juggling of iPhone-kept schedules that never quite sync. We try to schedule our commitments so as to always have a free parent to pick up the kids (and in case of emergency). But sometimes it is inevitable that we both have to be away and the decision is whether to make arrangements with my mother or sister to pick them up for a sleepover, or to bring them with us on one or the other of our business trips.
Even when we are both “here” so to speak, we are never quite all here. There’s always some distraction. Our cell phones ring, an “urgent” instant message comes in, or perhaps we are just distracted by the million things on that imaginary “to do” list in our minds. And like most professionals today, we don’t really produce anything all that tangible. Or, at least, we are so far removed from the production process that sometimes our connection to the stuff around us and the economy in general seems a tad abstract. That doesn’t stop us from working, especially when we feel like we are falling behind in relative economic terms—even if, paradoxically, we are faring better than ever in absolute terms.
It’s all enough to drive one bonkers. And sometimes I think that is what’s happening. Not just to me, but to lots of the folks around me. That rocking chair in my grandparents’ house sounds real nice about now. But I can’t seem to find it in this Elsewhere Society in which we live.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted April 24, 2014
Posted April 25, 2014
Posted September 11, 2011
This little book is built around the self-evident observation that lifestyle boundaries in he U.S. have blurred over the past 50 years. But although the Elsewheres are identified as vintage 2009, the book was published in 2008 and has not been updated to reflect the crash of financial and housing markets late in that year. It ignores that some professional work will ALWAYS pay more than others, regardless of hours spent on the job. And it never elaborates on the frightening statistic (p.18) that "today, the risk of a 50 percent income drop from one year to the next is over twice as great for the typical American family as it was in 1970." The author pays homage to a golden age when Americans actually "made stuff" yet appears oblivious to the economic value of convenience and comfort, however intangible and subjective those commodities may be. Furthermore, the people he describes seem disconnected from the influences of extended family and social networks, both secular and religious. These remain powerful forces in American life, although probably not in Mr. Conley's hip urban environment. That said, I'm still glad I read this book, and I believe it offers great opportunities for animated discussion. Personally, my favorite character in the narrative is the author's son, who learned at an early age to cut off the transatlantic connection on his mother's computer. What a smart kid!
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Posted March 16, 2009
Dalton Conley has written a book that rally showed what our society has become - urban zombies! What with the internet, cell phones and working from home, we have become a society that is no longer aware of the world and people around us. Do we enjoy our lives like they did fifty years ago? Are we all about the almighty dollar and the aggressive struggle to reach richness? This book explains what we once were and what we have become. I can understand what Mr. Conley writes about because many a day, I find my wife with two laptops on her couch while she is texting one coworker or another. Technology may be a good thing but are we giving up our individuality to have it all? I recommend this book to everyone.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 10, 2011
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