Friday, February 29, 2008

On Theories of History

Earlier this month, this article by Kay Hymowitz earned some attention from feminist bloggers. My aim here is not to rehash their insightful comments on Hymowitz' sexist, reductionist pearl-clutching over the sad state of today's single young men (SYM). Rather, I would like to address Hymowitz' ill-informed and (unfortunately) popular approach to theorizing historical change.

She begins with a nostalgic appeal to the fairly recent past:
It’s 1965 and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You have a factory job, or maybe you work for an insurance broker. Either way, you’re married, probably have been for a few years now; you met your wife in high school, where she was in your sister’s class. You’ve already got one kid, with another on the way. For now, you’re renting an apartment in your parents’ two-family house, but you’re saving up for a three-bedroom ranch house in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!

Fair enough. The 1950s and 1960s saw historic lows in the average age at marriage, so the guy she describes is hardly atypical in that respect. On the other hand, he is fortunate to have finished high school: assuming he graduated with the high school class of 1953 (at age 18), he was one of the privileged 35-40% of Americans who finished high school in the '50s. It's also reasonable to assume that he didn't attend college: only 7.7% of American 25-year-olds had a bachelor's degree in 1960. So far, so good.
But here's where the historian in me gets pissed off:
Now meet the twenty-first-century you, also 26. You’ve finished college and work in a cubicle in a large Chicago financial-services firm. You live in an apartment with a few single guy friends. In your spare time, you play basketball with your buddies, download the latest indie songs from iTunes, have some fun with the Xbox 360, take a leisurely shower, massage some product into your hair and face—and then it’s off to bars and parties, where you meet, and often bed, girls of widely varied hues and sizes. They come from everywhere: California, Tokyo, Alaska, Australia. Wife? Kids? House? Are you kidding?
Not so long ago, the average mid-twentysomething had achieved most of adulthood’s milestones—high school degree, financial independence, marriage, and children. These days, he lingers—happily—in a new hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. Decades in unfolding, this limbo may not seem like news to many, but in fact it is to the early twenty-first century what adolescence was to the early twentieth: a momentous sociological development of profound economic and cultural import. Some call this new period “emerging adulthood,” others “extended adolescence”; David Brooks recently took a stab with the “Odyssey Years,” a “decade of wandering.”

In this section, Hymowitz outlines a basic narrative of decline. Things were one way in the 1960s, today they are different (and worse). The unstated implication is that the norms of the 1960s are somehow natural, better, or historically representative. However, the lost "independence" of the 1960s young adult that Hymowitz laments is also a historically specific norm. Although many Americans seem to believe that Americans in the undefined past married young, had lots of children, and lived self-sufficient lives, this halcyon vision ignores almost every historical fact available to anyone who is willing to make the barest effort to educate his/herself. For example, the average age at marriage in 17th-century Massachusetts ranged from the mid to late twenties for men and the early to mid twenties for women (see: David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed, Roger Thompson's Sex in Middlesex, etc.). In 17th-century Virginia, a white man looking for a white wife was lucky to find her at any age. Think of it this way:
It’s 1665, and you’re a 26-year-old white guy. You’re an indentured servant in Virginia, or maybe you work on your father’s land in Massachusetts. Either way, you’re not married because you aren’t independent yet. For now, you’re sleeping on a pallet in the kitchen in your master’s/parents’ house, but you’re saving up for a few acres of your own in the next town. Yup, you’re an adult!

Perhaps this may seem a small point, but I think that it's implications are far-reaching. As an historian who hopes to have some contact with the public, even if only in the form of undergrads, one of the most important fictions that I hope to battle against is the idea of linear decline or improvement. Good luck with that, right? It is a crucial point: events do not move inexorably toward a fixed endpoint, whether that end is perfection or debasement. Times change because people change them, not because we are on an unalterable course toward the next chapter in the textbook. When people fail to realize the contingency of all historical events, their ability to make change in their own time is greatly diminished. Just because we have Roe v. Wade now doesn't mean we'll have it forever unless we fight to protect it. Just because young adulthood is different now than it was in 1965 doesn't mean it is necessarily worse.

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