October 10, 2007

David Brooks, still not too bright

Well, after almost a year of no Brooks, it turns out that he's still a moron. Though I have to give him some credit for sticking to observing social trends rather than using them to draw extremely tenuous inferences about politics. And there is at least some data present, and 2 whole references. Though I must admit to skepticism about this data point:

"People who were born before 1964 tend to define adulthood by certain accomplishments — moving away from home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family.

In 1960, roughly 70 percent of 30-year-olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30-year-olds had done the same."

What qualifies as becoming financially independent? Are 30-year-olds equally unlikely to have done all of those 4 things, or is just one skewing the data? And how about the 30-year-olds of 1960? Without this information it's unclear just how much this information actually tells us.

One problem (a common Brooks problem) is that his language is extremely general -- there is no suggestion that the "odyssey years" are only for the college educated -- yet something like this:

"The job market is fluid. Graduating seniors don’t find corporations offering them jobs that will guide them all the way to retirement. Instead they find a vast menu of information economy options, few of which they have heard of or prepared for."

Suggests that the "odyssey years" he is describing apply only to the children of the upper middle class and up. And while we're here, this paragraph would seem to conflict with one of Brooks's main definitions of the "odyssey years", that people in them are "delaying permanent employment." Well, one reason for that might be that permanent employment is hard to find these days, as Brooks makes abundantly clear in that paragraph i quoted above. For the poor, of course, permanent employment has always been difficult to find.

The main problem with this article, though, is that Brooks ignores or largely ignores at least two extremely important factors. The first one, which he at least acknowledges, is that the education level of women is rising. More educated women have fewer children, generally by having them later. This in turn pushes back the age of marriage (note that in 1960, the median age of first marriage was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women: now it's 27.5 and 25.5). And since people get married later, they have more time in which they are not burdened by family responsibilities. Instead, they can try different careers, because they don't need to worry about the impact quitting their job has on their kids, or move around without having to discuss each movement with a spouse, etc., etc., etc. This is especially true for those from families in the upper middle and upper classes, as they are in no danger of serious financial problems. (In this vein, it's probably worth noting that the 30-year-olds in 1960 grew up during the Great Depression and WWII, which might have influenced their outlook to a certain extent).

Then there is the question of financial independence. First, consider this chart. Note that the average salary of a 25-34 year old male with a bachelor's degree has been roughly the same since 1980, and the average salary of a 25-34 year old female with a bachelor's degree has been roughly the same since 1990, with variations in both cases of about 10% max. Meanwhile, the cost of college has risen considerably: from 1992-2002, 40% at private colleges and 33% at public universities (ok, I'm not entirely certain if i trust wsws.org, but this isn't exactly a controversial point). So naturally people in their twenties are becoming more financially dependent on their parents to pay off increasingly burdensome college loans. Strangely, Brooks doesn't mention this phenomenon at all.

Instead, Brooks prefers to concentrate on some nebulous "spirit of fluidity" that is apparently suffusing these times, which leads him to some unfortunate writing. For instance, what does this mean: "Young people grow up in tightly structured childhoods, Wuthnow observes, but then graduate into a world characterized by uncertainty, diversity, searching and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself." As far as i can tell, the first sentence tells nobody anything they didn't already know (wow, childhood is different from adulthood!), and the second one is pretty much meaningless ("everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself"? please). Sometimes i think that part of Brooks's problem is that this format is too short for him. Here, he wants to explore not only changes in the behavior of young adults from 1960-2007, but also the causes of those changes. This requires more than a few-hundred-word column. But mostly, i think that he's just not that bright.