“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”
―Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy
Nothing lasts forever, especially not the historical moment we now find ourselves in. The tremendous post-WW2 prosperity gave the world its greatest population boom, and, as a consequence, its greatest expansion of wealth at all levels of human society in human history. That wealth expansion gave the West the economic might to defeat the self-cannibalizing Soviet empire. It also gave birth to suburbs, which were an interesting embodiment of the institutional ethos of the era on several axes.
The suburbs looked like heaven compared to the cramped dwelling conditions of the city, and in some ways they were. Compared to urban dwellings, they allowed unheard-of elbow room and privacy for the (largely white) industrial middle-and-working classes. The green-space in every front and back yard, and the ability to host gatherings and structure life in a more free-form way, allowed the upwardly-mobile middle to really taste what a life of upper-class luxury might be, and do it on a budget they could afford. It was, to the eyes of the time, an orderly world of the future giving everyone a taste of the good life. But these benefits were, at best, mixed; the suburbs had several problems that became obvious as time marched on.
First, the suburbs weren’t exactly designed for the individualism that one might think implicit in privacy. Every family in a given development got a space nearly identical to every other space on the block. They were sedate places where children could play outside unsupervised without worry about coming into contact with the less savory elements of society. The homes were automated with every conceivable convenience, giving the post-war suburban housewife a class of mechanical servants to make up for the fact that she couldn’t afford the human servants common among the bourgeoisie of earlier eras. A very appealing prospect, and an unintentional disaster for the women of the era.
While most of human history featured a fairly strict division of the sexes, it was accompanied by a concomitant division of labor. The husband might go farm in the fields or work in the mine, but the wife would run the home, administer the finances, manage the family business, and do the actual hard work of keeping up with laundry, dishes, cooking, gardening, clothesmaking/mending, and social interface. Women’s work was hard work, every inch as difficult as the labor that happened in the fields and the mines and the factories (the latter of which women also often worked in), and that meant that there was a basis for mutual respect between the sexes, a sense of shared struggle, and a power base from which women could fight back against abusive partners.
With the introduction of suburbs and labor-saving appliances, all of that changed. Women of the industrial middle classes (both working and merchant) found themselves isolated in sprawling communities without the tight bonds with neighbors that prevailed both in urban and rural settings, without much less meaningful work to do even where parenting was concerned (as compulsory schooling took children out of the home for the bulk of each day, and the return of the GIs from WW2 forced women who were well-educated and/or highly accomplished out of the workforce), and, consequently, without a cultural voice or a recognized value of their labor. Given the propaganda of the era extolling the priceless value of the homemaker, this point requires a little more exploration.
Humans have been creating and benefiting from labor-saving technology since time immemorial, and the results have generally been positive because such devices increase the general wealth and welfare, and free people up to do more interesting/difficult things with their time. Often, the machines a given tradesman used in the course of his or her work were ones he or she invented (or at least built and assembled) in the course of their labors. Occasionally, when money was easy enough that buying such gadgets was possible, they were dearly purchased and valued highly.
It’s a strange wrinkle of human psychology that if something is given to us, we value it less than we might otherwise (with exceptions for symbolic gifts with deep sentiment attached). A rational person would treat a lottery win, an investment windfall, and a paycheck with the same amount of gravity. Of course, if people did this, the consumer credit industry (and tragic tales of lottery winners on the skids) wouldn’t exist. For the 50s housewife, the labor-saving devices were invented and built by strangers, maintained by specialists, and purchased with money earned by their husbands. And, since these women were geographically and socially isolated, weren’t encouraged to have careers, were not needed to make or maintain clothing and equipment, didn’t need to bake if they weren’t so inclined, and were often not allowed to manage the finances (a break from previous eras), these marvelous labor-saving devices freed them to do...nothing at all. Every day. Endlessly. Without the satisfaction and self respec that would have been theirs had their their leisure was won through their own cleverness or diligence or agency. The result was an economic and cultural arrangement that (even before you bring in the stuff in the next paragraph) infantilized women and robbed them of self-ownership, which (as it does with any human) made them easy prey for the dynamic they found themselves pushed into with a minimum of opposition.
**Note: While I’m talking about a select subset of the population, it is the subset that set the tone for the way the culture moved. Since the Victorian age, middle class women set the moral, social, aesthetic, and commercial agenda for the country (due to their free time and control over household spending). The culture that first oppressed suburban women spread through one of the most intense commercial propaganda campaigns the world has ever seen.**
All of this, it must be remembered, was made possible by the desire of the most conformist generation in American history to not face any more unpleasantness than necessary. After a Depression and a World War, they felt they’d really done their bit for king and country, and they wanted to put as much distance between themselves and the nasty side of life as possible. So this “Greatest Generation” gave birth to a world of idealism. The ideal of the strapping professional man and tradesman, competent and professional and operating without personal agendas, became the guiding light of popular culture even as the actual professionals and tradesmen themselves wrestled with endless PTSD, financial difficulties, and imprisonment in a regimented and increasingly highly-regulated economic and social life that left them feeling as if they could not reveal their true selves to anyone for fear of upsetting the social apple cart (this wasn’t an unfounded fear—all the propaganda of the era talks explicitly about protecting children and women, and their “weaker” minds, from the difficult realities of life).
Similarly, the ideal of middle-class homemaker-hood was valorized, but at the expense of the middle-class mothers themselves. They became “kept” women, with all the downsides of being a mistress, but none of the freedom. To achieve social respectability—one of the most basic human needs—they were obligated to submit to controls at every level from their style of dress, to their parenting behaviors, to their cooking habits, to their sexuality, to their emotional lives. Therapists reported their confessions to husbands, neighbors tattled on one another. Post-war suburbia had all the conditions to turn the freest country in the world into a virtual slave state, putting the husband into a position of authority almost as absolute as that enjoyed by Roman paterfamilias.
This conformity wasn’t just imposed on women. Its soul-deadening load was heaped upon men as well, and especially upon the black populations in the more progressive and prosperous areas of the country (in addition to the previous insults and injuries of segregation and miscegenation laws and general second-class citizenship). Its insufferable burden led directly to the epidemic of divorce, the rise in violent crime, and the cultural ferment of the 1960s.
It was also, as was typical for all post-WW2 programs, economically and mathematically unsustainable.
In rural areas, each house has its own sewage treatment system and its own well, often on cheap-to-maintain dirt roads. In small towns, houses cluster around commercial centers which generate revenues which can be used to plow snow, maintain the roads, and maintain the sewage and water systems. In urban areas, with their close co-location of industry, business, and high-density housing, maintenance is regular and necessary—cities only cease to be sustainable as a result of poor policy.
Suburbs, on the other hand, are unsustainable even in theory. They do not feature the businesses that generate gobs taxable revenue as do cities, yet their low-density and high-comfort rationale necessitates paved streets, common sewer and water infrastructure, communal green spaces (public parks), and local schools, all of which must be maintained on low property taxes (otherwise people would not be able to afford to live there).
The result is that for suburbs to survive as suburbs (instead of as small towns), they must be subsidized—easy when they’re part of a larger metroplex (such as in New York), but impossible when they’re locally controlled. This meant that, for suburbs to sustain themselves, they had to borrow and grow. Debt-based growth gave the local governments the funds they needed to do inadequate rolling repairs on older developments while new developments slowly decayed under inadequate maintenance until their turn could come for a big batch of public works money. Old residents who could afford it would move out to the next new development with new clean infrastructure, clearing the way for lower-income folks to move into the already-decaying early developments.
A wave of poor, higher-crime neighborhoods chasing good, low-crime neighborhoods that iterated across the landscape.
All of this sowed seeds of lasting discontent, and created problems we’re still paying for today.
The desolate lives of post-war women also convinced their daughters that they would not stand for this kind of thing. They would enter the workforce and create for themselves a new power base, from which they could demand respect. This trend did not go unnoticed by leaders in the corporate world.
The Baby Boomers, you see, were more than twice as large as the generation which preceded them in the labor market—but that labor market only included half of the population, since (by and large) the women didn’t work outside the home. So when the Boomers entered the job market, there were four times more incoming applicants chasing less than twice as many jobs. Corporate bosses noticed and poured a lot of effort into encouraging the trend. By the late nineteen-sixties, the median wage was already starting to fall like a rock in a well.
At the same time, the prevalence of divorce meant that the housing stock couldn’t keep up with the demand for housing. By 1975, the Boomers had all been on-boarded into the labor market, and the Thirty Glorious Years of economic growth ended. The financialization of the economy began. By spinning up new debt instruments (like the 30-year mortgage), increasing deficit spending while cutting taxes, increasing the regulatory burdens enormously to decrease economic competition and channel people into large-scale corporate environments, and incentivizing investment over labor, the powers that be managed to maintain the illusion that growth could be infinite. And, so long as the population boom continued, odds were that increased base-effect growth would make things even out in the end.
However, the cultural stagnation (and the overpopulation panic) of the 1950s and early 1960s led to a couple seemingly-minor effects that would undercut this thinking.
First—combined with the ongoing rise in suburban and urban living—children became a luxury item. In all previous civilizations children were an asset (and, when they weren’t, they were disposed of by means ranging from infanticide to slavery to some sort of fosterage/orphanage system). Each child might be an extra mouth to feed, but he or she is also an extra pair of hands, an extra pair of legs, and an extra free mind, all of which can be tasked to running the family farm or business, serve as hands to receive the family legacy, be educated to improve the family fortune, and care for their parents in old age. They were labor that added value once they were old enough to pick up a hoe or collect eggs. And if they weren’t, well, they could work in the factories and the mines or sewing rooms with their parents. Either way, they generally paid their way, and not having any was a pretty reliable way to die broke, young, and leave a bad-looking corpse.
In the suburbs (and the urban world after the advent of child labor laws), children are a leisure class—objects of concern and burnishment rather than sources of production and creativity. They are, to put it bluntly, luxury goods on par with a Ferrari. Glorious-but-expensive at best, ruinously profligate at worst. The only economic value they retain is as old-age health care.
Another digression is in order here. Humans throughout history have had relationships that we in the current era would describe as “complicated.” Those who exchanged affections and loyalties with one another also provided each other with economic value, social capital, insurance, and expertise. The closest anyone came to a clean, one-dimensional relationship was a business deal with a traveling salesman, and even then such one-dimensional relationships were viewed with suspicion. Hospitality (including, even in many cultures that were otherwise very conservative and highly ordered, sexual hospitality in the form of spouse-swapping or orgies) was a set of rituals designed to create extra bonds of loyalty between trading partners, friends, and distant acquaintances. The basic, unarticulated logic went something like this:
“We need each other to survive, so we better have as many reasons to need each other as we can create.”
Thus, children were not only loved and cared for because all mammals love their children. They also brought value to their parents in every possible way (including sexual value, since their marriageability and fertility were the key to the family’s survival). But as economic prosperity grew in the nineteenth century, children’s value to their families started (for understandable and rational reasons) to be slowly pushed to later in life.
Prosperity created that idyllic leisure period we call “childhood” (meaning that, after age 5, our primary occupation is play rather than a mix of play and work), and then—partly as a result of outrage over poor industrial working conditions—the prizing of leisure-based childhood as a marker of economic (and, therefore, moral) superiority led to incremental extensions. What was once a long apprenticeship with various stages (including schooling in at least the trade-of-choice, if not also in letters and math) became a long pause in development for indoctrination and leisure, before finally one was dropped “fully formed” into the workforce to fend for oneself. The on-ramp from childhood to adulthood became a BASE jump.
In the process, one after another form of value that children brought to their families was eroded. While this did reduce a LOT of exploitation that went on (especially slave-like labor exploitation in industrial communities and child-marriage in some of the more dysfunctional rural communities), it also reduced the incentives parents had for loving and caring for their children, to say nothing of bearing them in the first place. In the Western world, this conversion of children from “indispensable community member” to “luxury good and/or poverty trap” took over two centuries. In the Developing world, it happened in a generation or two. In either case, the result was the same:
The urgent need for reliable control over reproduction, by fair means or foul.
This need was answered by a cavalcade of inventive chemicals and devices which freed women from their reproductive cycles and allowed families to invest more in fewer children.
First, and most underappreciated, is the one-two punch of antibiotics and vaccines. Disease and plague are regular occurrences in human history, largely brought on by trade and novel technologies. The Age of Discovery (which followed the Black Death) created an Age of Plagues across the world, and the burn-through rate of plagues didn’t start to slow until the mid-nineteenth century (partly due to growing herd immunity, partly due to the re-discovery of principles of public sanitation once practiced by the Romans but scaled up for the new ultra-high-density industrial cities), but that didn’t mean that disease burden wasn’t still a huge problem.
During the Age of Plagues, it was not uncommon for a family with a dozen babies to have only one or two children reach adulthood (even if you were Empress of the Known World, as was the case with Queen Victoria). That’s a LOT of investment of labor, treasure, love, and pain for a very uncertain payoff. With penicillin and vaccination, this situation changed, and that change accelerated to the point where, by the 1950s, the idea that a parent might outlive his or her children was seen as positively monstrous.
This also meant that women must somehow find a way not to have so many children. Fears of overpopulation—due to the starkly declining death rate—were on the rise at the same time the rewards attached to parenthood were on the decline and the burdens of even a small family were growing from “doable” to “prohibitive.” The solution was a cluster of technologies that began with hormonal birth control, then added in elective abortion, then brought in mechanical birth control (the IUD, elective sterilization, and internal barrier devices).
Birth control freed women from enslavement to their reproductive cycle. It made it less likely that women would die in childbirth, and gave them back some of the sexual and social power that the post-war order had robbed them of. Hormonal birth control also altered (in ways only now reaching public consciousness) women’s mate selection patterns, resulting in a number of knock-on effects both positive and negative which are, for the moment, beyond the scope of this series.
But for our purposes, the most important effect of the availability of birth control is that it laid two seeds of destruction for the post-WW2 world order.
First, by liberating women it forced a renegotiation of the social contract between the sexes, one that the hidebound conservative culture of the industrial middle class was unwilling to undertake, and still has not successfully undertaken.
By the way, that mention of “conservative” is not a pass for self-styled political “liberals” (full disclosure, I am neither). Lefties and righties and centrists in the industrial middle class are incredibly conservative and hidebound by historical standards, we just hide it from ourselves by disdaining formality.
The result has been a series of cultural and legal kludges that, on the whole, have disincentivized family formation and community building and has atomized culture (religious and cultural struggles about the nature of families and social morality tend to obscure the fact that all civilizations are built with the blocks of family units embedded in a community of other family units, however those family units are constituted). Both male in-group culture and female in-group culture shattered, and that startling complexity of relationships that characterized the whole of human evolution up to this point has eroded almost entirely.
Second, by reducing the birth rate, control over reproduction completely undercut the core assumption of all post-WW2 economics and politics: the next generation will be larger and more prosperous than their parents, and thus able to pay off debts (personal, familial, and governmental) incurred in their caretaking, supply the retirement income for the previous generation, and maintain the infrastructure created for the maintenance of the civilization. This plunge in birth rate meant that the generations that followed the boomers are smaller, have less power in the labor force and culture, and less earning power (and thus, taxability) even individually, let alone in aggregate. This created a demographic cliff in every single developed country on the planet which we all walk off the edge of...
As the baby boomers retire, the largest, most wealthy generation in history is converting its investments to savings, ceasing forever to appreciably pay taxes, invest in businesses, and contribute to the availability of credit. The Enron-in-nation-state-form political economy of every developed nation on the planet ceases to be sustainable this year. And, because of the global baby bust, it will not recover to current levels in the lifetimes of any of those who read this book (barring major developments in life extension technology).
In previous eras, complex relationships and the multifaceted bonds and obligations they entailed were the key to human survival in the face of an uncertain and capricious world. They were managed by social ritual (usually quite formalized, and, as a result, often oppressive ) and hierarchy (sometimes context-dependent—such as the hierarchies within fraternal orders vs. professional environments vs. families and clans vs. religious vs. political vs. sewing circles vs. community organizations—and sometimes absolute, such as the Roman paterfamilias system, the French Arsitocratic system, and the Victorian “head-of-household” arrangement, among many others).
In our era, delicious informality is the order of the day. As a consequence, complex relationships have become a social (and sometimes legal) taboo, virtually impossible to maintain...
Exactly at the point in time when such relationships will be all we have available to save us from the greatest fall any economic system has ever seen.
But that’s only the beginning.
Next time, we will look at the other two major seeds of destruction—one of which just might bear the kind of fruit that will unlock our collective salvation.
In the meantime, I invite you to post any corrections or arguments in the comments, or send them directly to me at email@example.com.