Those of us who believe that cultural norms are crucial to understanding many of our social problems haven’t found a lot of friends in the ranks of social scientists. There are many reasons for that. Culture is an endlessly debated term relying on words like “norms,” “values,” and “beliefs” that are resistant to precise definition and quantitative study. Researchers tend to want to affect public policy, but state and federal bureaucrats aren’t likely to find “culture” a fertile source for random assignment pilot programs. The long and powerful hold of homo economicus—the individual, self-interested actor—on the modeling of economists has also played a role. However you define it, culture implies an invisible collective sway over individual behavior.
Happily, over the past decade or so, the culture-atheists have been challenged by important work from scholars, such as Alberto Alesina and others, on trust and economic development as well as by an expanding body of data from the World Values Survey starting in 1981. Although the field of sociology has been slower to dig into the topic, there have been a few bright spots. One is the work of Duke University sociologist Jessi Streib whose most recent paper, “Class, Culture, and Downward Mobility,” is a suggestive look at how cultural norms influence social mobility, as well as into her own profession.
It’s become something of a cliché that middle-class parents engage in intensive child-rearing called “helicoptering” by lay people, or “concerted cultivation” in the well-known phrase of sociologist Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods. They take them to swim and art classes and computer camp, and they supervise their homework and develop their talents. Lareau and the many sociologists following in her path argue that it’s an approach that successfully prepares children to negotiate middle-class institutions like schools, labs, and offices.
According to this line of thinking, by passing on a sense of “entitlement,” middle-class parents teach their children that they have “a right to pursue individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings.” Working-class parents, on the other hand, demand obedience to authority and the “constraint” consistent with their material circumstances. They learn to suppress individual preferences. To put it a little differently, working-class kids say, “Yes, ma’am” as they follow directions, while entitled middle-class kids feel “free to be you and me.”
Streib begins with a simple question: What about the surprising number of middle-class kids who don’t do so well? How is it that entitlement didn’t work in those cases? For an answer, she turns to data and 132 in-depth interviews of middle-class kids conducted during their transition to adulthood by the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR). She compares those kids who have followed the conventional path of school-to-college-to-professional job that would “reproduce” their parents’ class status with a group of kids who are seemingly headed towards downward mobility.
Contra the assumptions of many of her colleagues, she discovered entitlement can be “a reason for … failure to do well in school and work, not a route toward class reproduction.” Doing well in school means going to class, following course requirements, and turning in required papers when they are due. To succeed in the work-place, you have to finish projects or briefs in a timely manner, follow a boss’ suggested corrections, and get along with colleagues you can’t stand. The downwardly mobile tended towards grandiosity, convinced that authority’s evaluations were wrong, and their own correct. And like Bartleby, they preferred not to.
Streib’s examples of the wages of entitlement will sound familiar to anyone who has listened to the complaints of Millennial-supervising teachers, professors, and office managers. There is Reba who has a “seven-year plan where I just go and take the classes that interest me, that are going to help me be the kind of person that I want to be,” but forgoes a degree because “I just can’t force myself to go to Math 101 or English 101.” Kendra, who hoped to begin a career as a television show writer, “admitted that she did little academic work in college and had little experience in her field but “expected to be quickly put in a position where she could write scripts.” Ned, who seemed assured of his own giftedness, but failed to turn in homework and graduated with such low grades that he couldn’t get into a four-year college. By age 26, he still hadn’t completed community college. “We’re brought up saying you can do whatever you want and so I’m not going to do anything until I know that’s what I want,” Reid told an interviewer. At 28, he was one more poverty statistic.
In truth, the middle-class kids Streib describes as successfully negotiating the constraints of bureaucratic institutions would not make all parents proud. Their strategies for making it include resume padding, grade-grubbing, and brown-nosing, not just hard work. It’s also worth mentioning that some kids simply preferred working-class jobs. Statistics might define the electrician and the cosmetologist in the sample as downwardly mobile, but both of them viewed their professions as a conscious and affirmative individual choice.
There are two methodological reasons to view Streib’s findings as tentative. Her sample is small, and, as she acknowledges, the NSYR interview schedule, problematic. The final interviews took place when the subjects were anywhere from 23 to 28 years old, but these days a lot of young adults don’t find their way in the adult world until well into their twenties or even later. Some late-bloomers go on to great success. A delayed trajectory may well be more common in creative careers chosen by many middle-class kids. I’m thinking of a musician I know who had been living far more modestly than his well-to-do, cosmopolitan parents might have hoped who finally made it big—in his forties.
Streib allows that sociology has some “blinders” that have prevented practitioners from seeing that entitlement is a double-edged sword. But she (understandably) understates the problem. “Class, Culture, and Downward Mobility” unwittingly exposes her field’s groupthink and preconceptions about American society and its economy. Downward mobility turns out to be more common for the children of the middle class than many want to admit. Words like privilege and entitlement may confirm our intuitions of an unjust system, but they don’t capture the complex culture of the middle class. Many middle-class parents are evidently reproducing “constraint,” supposedly a working-class or poverty characteristic, in their kids. When you think about it, “constraint” is another way of saying self-discipline, conscientiousness, and future orientation, long recognized by cultural historians as bourgeois aspirations.
Streib would probably agree that the sociological study of cultural norms still has a way to go.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.