The Lonely Crowd, Part I: Parenting Philosophy Among Millennials and Boomers

            Before we begin, I would like to address the Overwritten audience. My readers, listeners, and even my viewers, few though they are, deserve an explanation for my recent reticence, as well as an understanding of what I intend for Overwritten henceforth to be.

            Hitherto, Overwritten has been dedicated mostly to news commentary, especially political news commentary. In recent years, however, I have come to question the validity and integrity of this practice: the independent media is overrun with political news commentators, all of whom are expected to issue “hot takes” and instantaneous reactions to anything and everything that emerges in the broader political media. My analysis, based on years of observation and direct participation, is that this commentary is little more than ideological reactionaryism, and much of it (if not all of it) is disproven in time, often in very little time, as additional facts and information surface.

            If we wish to understand the modern world, then ideological reactionaryism obviously will not do—and ideological reactionaryism appears to me to be an inevitable feature of political news commentary. It makes no difference whether the commentators are “independent” or not, for their reactions are still formed in myopia and ignorance. Jimmy Dore and Caitlin Johnstone seem to be the biggest names in the independent political media, but if we review what they said months ago and compare it to what they say today, then it immediately becomes obvious how little they knew then, and how little they understand now. They apply their personal biases to their consumption of “the news”, with predictably unenlightening results.

            A better approach, and certainly part of the correct approach, is not to immerse ourselves in the chaotic noise of the present, but to look backwards, to read the words of thoughtful men and women who lived and observed and studied long ago. The purpose of this practice is to understand the present as part of a historical continuum, not as the isolated byproduct of the past century alone. How can we understand the alienation of postindustrial humanity without reading Dostoyevsky? How can we understand the decline of tradition without reading Plato? How can we understand our collective lack of values without reading Nietzsche? Obviously, we cannot, and no reactionary ideologue will serve as an effective substitute.

            Accordingly, I would like Overwritten to move away from political news commentary and move towards literary analysis. The best videos on the Overwritten channel were those I produced with my wife, Christy, when we read and discussed the writing of Machiavelli. We found his work to be, not just compelling, but also deeply relevant to the modern world. My goal is for Overwritten to become known for this type of content, for the ideological reactionaryism that was for so long its staple.

            With that being said, I would like to discuss the book I am reading now: The Lonely Crowd, a nonfiction work of sociological analysis written by David Riesman, co-written by Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, and originally published in the year 1950. It is interesting (and revealing) that a modern audience would consider this book “old”, even though it was published less than seventy-five years ago. There is a strong antihistorical tendency among modern Americans, including those who were born around the time The Lonely Crowd was published . . . but that is a discussion for a different day.

            Today, I would like to discuss David Riesman’s observations of his own time and compare his analysis to what we might we find in the world today. As I mentioned, he published The Lonely Crowd in the year 1950, when America was just beginning to emerge from the Second World War and establishing itself as a global economic superpower. Under these conditions, the baby boomers were coming into being—although I’m not sure the term “baby boomer” had even been coined by the time this book was published. In the year 1950, the oldest of the baby boomers were still under the age of five, and so, they could not have been understood as an autonomous, isolated category of individuals with distinctive personal characteristics. How foreign this is to the modern world, where we have a very defined and specific image of “the boomers”, and frequently speak of their imminent demise!

            I mention this because Mr. Riesman writes at some length about changes in parenting and child rearing in the United States—changes that were still recent in his time, but which had become widespread by the year 1950. He describes the newfound sensitivity and receptivity of American parents to their children’s wants, and the parents’ own desires to fulfill those wants. He observes a shift from previous systems of parenting—whereby children were molded and shaped according to external expectations, either their parents’ or society’s—to a modern philosophy, one in which the children seem to determine standards and values.

Obviously, this approach to parenting is not uncontroversial. In Riesman’s time as well as our own, it has suffered criticism, much of it quite convincing, for producing pampered and entitled children who go on to become dysfunctional and incompetent adults. However, in our time this is still believed to be a recent phenomenon: we believe that this practice of “indulging” children did not begin, or at least become widespread, until the 1980s or the 1990s. It is said to be the millennial condition, for millennials, we are told, were the first to be coddled and spoiled en masse by their permissive, shortsighted parents.

Without considering whether millennials are, in fact, pampered and indulged, we know this alleged phenomenon is no longer “recent”. When Riesman refers to “the youth” of his time, he is referring to people born in the 1930s, possibly even the 1920s: he is referring to people who were coming to the end of their adolescence at the time The Lonely Crowd was published. These are the people who would come to raise the baby boomers, their children, under a certain set of standards and values: in all likelihood, they were extending their own “tradition” of indulgence to the baby boomers.

As illuminating as his study was and is, I am sure Mr. Riesman would have been the first to admit that he sometimes painted with a rather broad brush. He never intended to suggest that every member of the Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation—these are the generations that raised the baby boomers—was pampered and indulged, but he does prove that this phenomenon was expanding, however gradually, throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It may not have become widespread until the year 1950, or some time thereafter, but he knew the conditions for such a phenomenon were being cultivated in the meantime. Undoubtedly, these conditions met a “perfect storm” of sorts in the 1950s, when affluence flourished in America, and when unbridled consumerism became a standard and a norm.

I suspect this information will come as a great surprise to a great many people. At the very least, it informs our understanding of the cultural war currently being waged between the boomers and the millennials. The boomers describe the millennials as spoiled brats who have deviated from the respectable American tradition of rugged discipline, and while there may be some legitimacy to this accusation, it is clear enough from reading The Lonely Crowd that the millennials have not committed a radical break from their forefathers. They may be “spoiled brats”, but they are fourth- or fifth-generation spoiled brats, with the boomers being the first or second generation.

Personally, I don’t think this dimension of the culture war is particularly productive. There is little sense in blaming people for the way they were raised, and without a personal appreciation of historical conditions, we might not fairly blame the parents for raising their children in this way. There is, however, reason to suspect the boomers’ criticism of the millennials is, to some extent, a matter of psychological projection, a romantic revision of their own personal history. Furthermore, we might ask whether the romantic revision of American history, whether the historical narrative that the boomers accepted and promoted, is itself influenced by some of the same tendencies.

At the same time, we must not reduce this insight to a convenient reason to rail against the boomers. That would be a wretched repurposing of Riesman’s work, if not its effective negation. Instead, we must approach the problem of indulgent parenting anew, contextualizing it as part of a multi-generational phenomenon. This phenomenon did not begin with the millennials, but maybe it is nearing its culmination with them? Maybe the consequences of this philosophy of parenting are finally manifesting themselves clearly, and will become increasingly clear with each generation that adheres thereunto?

We will continue our discussion of The Lonely Crowd in the future, but today, we will end, not with a quotation by David Riesman, but an aphorism written by none other than Nietzsche: “When we find we must change our opinion of a man, we hold the inconvenience he causes us very much against him.”

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