In his new book, Coming apart: the state of white America 1960-2010, American conservative Charles Murray argues that a new upper class and a new lower class have developed in the US since the early 1960s that are so far apart “they barely recognize their underlying American kinship”.
The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.
Murray is a controversial writer and I don’t agree with all he has to say, but my interest at the moment is the comparison he draws between living in the US suburbs in the 1960s and living there now. In particular, Murray contrasts what was considered acceptable housing for the middle and elite classes in 1963 with the sort of “unseemly” extravagances of conspicuous consumption that are common in American suburbia today.
He begins by noting that the distribution of income was far more compressed in 1963 than it is today. Back then, the median family income of professionals and managerial occupations was only about $62,000 p.a. in today’s dollars. Less than 1% of American families in 1963 had incomes higher than $200,000 p.a. and only 8% had household incomes higher than $100,000 p.a. (again, all figures in today’s dollars).
The housing of the time reflected the same degree of compression. Even the elite didn’t usually live in what we think of today as a mansion. He recommends viewing an episode of Mad Men to see the sort of house – remarkably modest by today’s standards – that the Drapers live in. That, he says, is “the kind of house that the creative director of a major New York advertising agency might well have lived in”.
In 1963, great mansions were something most Americans saw in the movies, not in person. Only the richest suburbs of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles had entire neighborhoods consisting of mansions.
The nature of the change since then can be seen by driving around suburban neighborhoods where the affluent of the 1960s lived, such as Chevy Chase, Maryland; Belmont, Massachusetts; or Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Most of the housing stock remaining from that era looks nothing like the 15,000- and 20,000-square-foot homes built in affluent suburbs over the last few decades. No reproductions of French châteaux. No tennis courts. No three-story cathedral ceilings.
The average price in 1963 of a home in affluent Chevy Chase was $272,000 (today’s dollars). That, he points out, is not “astronomically higher” than the price at the time of a middle class home or the average $129,000 price of all new homes built in 1963.
To put it another way, you could live in a typical house in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the nation for about twice the average cost of all houses built that year nationwide.
There was a difference between the houses of the upper-middle class and of those who were merely in the middle class. An upper-middle-class home might have four bedrooms instead of two or three, two bathrooms and a powder room instead of one bathroom, and two floors instead of one. It might have a two-car garage, maybe a rec room for the kids and a study for Dad.
What was an upper middle class home in the US in 1963 sounds pretty much like a standard suburban two storey McMansion routinely constructed on the outskirts of Australian cities (although we seem to use the term ‘McMansion’ to describe houses that are considerably smaller than Americans apply it to. Note also that most homes constructed on the suburban fringe in Australian cities aren’t two storeys).
A McMansion on the outskirts of Brisbane, Perth or Adelaide is likely to be occupied by residents of considerably lower social status than the Drapers. Of course it’s not just McMansions – many of the modest homes built in the 1960s and earlier in the inner city and middle ring suburbs of our cities have been massively expanded outwards and upwards by new generations of owners.
Murray has a section in his book on “unseemliness”, of which huge houses is only one aspect (see exhibit).
Unseemliness is a symptom of the collapse of codes of behavior that depend not on laws and regulations, but upon shared understandings regarding the fitness of things, and upon an allegiance to behave in accordance with those shared understandings. Unseemliness is another symptom of hollowness at the core.