Recently, I finished
reading the two above books: "Bobos
in Paradise" by David Brooks and "Fear
of Falling" by Barbara Ehrenreich. These two books are very different
in style and yet come to very similar conclusions regarding their subject: the
new upper middle class of America.
calls this new elite "The Professional Class" while Brooks anoints
these 9 million affluent Americans as Bobos: the Bohemian Bourgeois. This
pretty much highlights the differences between the two books. While Ehrenreich
challenges the our preconceptions of class in America with hard evidence,
Brooks makes his case through amusing observations and antidotes. If I had
read only Brooks book, I think I probably wouldn't have given his conclusions
much weight but because his stories (published in 2000) resonate with Ehrenreich's
reasoned arguments (published in 1990), I'm taking them more seriously.
of the reasons why I think these books really struck a chord with myself is
that they both try to reconcile what has happened in America from the 1960's
through to the 1990's. How could such a radicalized youth become such slaves
David and Barbara believe that the social upheavals of the 1960's were side
effects of the rise to power of the middle class that was, the first time,
taking over the institutions previously held by the affluent WASP elite. To be
bohemian was the embodiment of rejecting all that the elite stood for.
yet, while pleasure-loving and fiercely independent, a member of the middle
class must also adopt the bourgeois manners of hard work and delayed
gratification because admittance to
the professional class is so strongly dependent on higher education.
is the combination of these two cultures that embody the self-identity of the
upper middle class. They may work 10 hours days - but that's because they
don't consider it "work" but play or perhaps part of a
"business revolution". They may consider spending $15,000 for
TV/sound system vulgar, but consider spending five times as much on a kitchen,
as a necessity.
Brooks is at his best when he explains such spending habits and goes on to
tackle Bobo business life and (the most damning for myself who works in
Academia) Bobo intellectual life. Perhaps one of his best sections of his book
deals with the emergence of the "Latte Town". I stumbled upon one
such town last year and it blew my mind. After I had left beautiful Ann Arbor,
Michigan I could not help but describe it to my friends as "filled with
rich hippies!!!" Now I know that such a place does not occur in
isolation. They develop wherever the Bobo dwell in numbers.
Brooks also has moments of weakness. For example, he essentially reduces Bobo
spiritual state of mind to the state of Montana. And after frequently teasing
the Bobos for their lack of political awareness, he finishes his book with a
unenthusiastic chapter on politics.
Ehrenreich, on the other hand, tackles politics in every chapter. It makes for
less fun but more necessary reading because Ehrenreich is trying to battle
misconceptions of class in America. You feel that she has been forced to pull
out voting pattern and other statistics just to convince the reader that there
is class in America, much less, class conflict.
the two, Brooks is the easiest on the Bobos: he admits that because of them,
"shops are more interesting. The food in the grocery stores and
restaurants is immeasurably better and more diverse"... Ehrenreich, on
the other hand, is more damning and makes the case that the ascendancy of the
professional elite is frequently at the expense of the working class.
these books now I feel I know who buys SUVs and why. It will take me a little
while to figure out how to apply this information to find a means to make them