Friday, April 08, 2016

Life at the Top, 2016

Last year, a new book, Primates of Park Avenue, by a Gen X anthropologist and Manhattan resident named Wednesday Morgan, created a minor sensation.  The book detailed the lives of wealthy young parents on the upper East Side, of which Ms. Morgan used to be one (she has now moved across the park.)  I waited until now, when it was readily available at the library, to read it, and I was rather fascinated by it.  It is a window into a world very few of us actually get to see--and while the author has an interesting perspective on it, it is not by any means the only possible one.

What Morgan did in the book was to use the tools of anthropology--particularly the kind that is done in the field--and primatology to analyze the behavior of what he describes as her tribe.  That tribe is not defined by blood--although if it has any nonwhite members, we never hear about them--but rather by wealth and location.  It consists of the women (and she consistently regards the men, including her own husband, as part of an entirely separate tribe) who live in upscale Upper East Side apartments or townhouses while they raise their children.  They are, of course, extremely wealthy--indeed, they probably all belong to the 1%, although I don't believe Morgan ever uses that term.  The book is very short on economic analysis, and never puts numbers on the incomes that support the lifestyles it describes.  It includes only one detailed discussion of finances, which I shall come to in a moment.  The book is well and cleverly written, largely because Morgan obviously loves her discipline of anthropology and enjoys putting it to a new use.   But Morgan does not allow American history, literature or economics to intrude into her discussion, and this is the gap that I would like to try briefly to fill.

The book can be read, to begin with, as a commentary on the failure of feminism at the upper reaches of American society.  Forty years ago, educated upper middle class women rebelled against the notion that they had to spend their time raising their children, keeping their houses perfectly clean, lunching and shopping with friends, playing bridge, and managing their families' social lives.  They also wanted to earn their own money.  These were very worthy goals, and they are still the goals of many middle and upper class women, even though American society has not done as much as advanced European countries to make it possible to achieve them and allow both men and women to combine careers and family life without too much stress.  But Morgan's primates have entirely abandoned these goals.   Although there are scattered references to a few of them having unidentified careers--and although Morgan stresses that she remains a writer--most of them obviously do not have jobs at all.  Like their counterparts from the GI generation, they are focused on their children--who are much more numerous than among the middle class--their clothes, their social interaction with one another, and their vacations and vacation homes. Although all of them, I would assume, attended elite colleges, I do not think that any of them is ever described as having any serious intellectual, political, or artistic interests.  What does distinguish them from earlier generations is their obsessive focus on their own bodies and exercise. This is not completely new, of course, but only in the last thirty years as working out become a huge industry, and they are among its most devoted customers.  And all this costs money.  The one detailed accounting that the book contains deals with the cost of maintaining the proper personal appearance of an Upper East Side wife, broken down into hair and scalp, face, body, and wardrobe, both for daily use and vacations.  It totaled about $100,000 a year, and Morgan and the friend who drew up the accounts concluded by promising not to tell their husbands.

The social mores of the tribe are intimidating, and the opening chapters of the book concern the rituals of breaking into it.  The atmosphere among the mothers dropping off their kids at their schools and pre-schools every morning is reminiscent of high school corridors--an analogy Morgan does use--but it also reminded me of the Versailles court under Louis XIV, or 19th-century Paris society as described by Balzac.  Everyone is sizing up each other's appearance, and who speaks to whom is the critical question of almost every day.  Status, now as then, comes from having the right clothes, the right accessories, the right kids, and the right husband--usually a leading hedge fund manager who can help other people's husbands.  I couldn't help wondering, too, whether the atmosphere inside the kids' private schools resembles what Orwell described in his great essay, Such, Such were the Joys, in which boys bragged shamelessly about their vacation homes and servants and compared their fathers' incomes.

And here, to me, was the real value of this book as a document.  We are hearing more and more about inequality nowadays--although I'm afraid it's going to get significantly worse before it gets better--but we are focused, understandably, on its impact on the less well off.  This book raises the question of what it does to the more well off--what the lives of the 1% are actually like.  In my opinion there is absolutely nothing appealing about the lives of these women and their children, or, probably, most of their husbands, either.  As Morgan eventually realizes and discusses at length, the women's lives are ruled by anxiety.  The anxiety is no less real because it is of their own making.  They are worried about having less than perfect children, less than perfect clothes, and less than perfect bodies.  In this atmosphere it is obviously very difficult to form genuine close friendships (as the playwright Clare Booth also pointed out 80 years ago in The Women), although Morgan did so, late in the book, as a result of a personal tragedy, a pregnancy she lost in the last trimester. Their fears and the money their husbands earn support entire industries staffed by the middle class, including an army of nannies (who make as much as $100,000 [sic!] a year), personal trainers, hair stylists, drivers, and the teachers and administrators of private schools.   Nor do they seem to know or care much about what is happening in the wider world.   They do spend a good deal of time organizing and attending charity events, but many of them, such as school fund raisers, relate directly to their own lives.  In one interesting exception to the rule, Morgan and her husband, at the outset of the book, are determined to buy an apartment in a good public school district for their young son.  (She subsequently adds another one.)  They pursue this goal even though it severely restricts their choice of apartments.  But  they got over this vestige of egalitarianism: at the end of the book we are informed that the family has moved to the upper West Side, where their sons' private school is located.

The husbands, meanwhile, are busy manipulating money at investment banks, hedge funds, and (less commonly, it seems), law firms.  Doctors, interestingly enough, seem to be much less common at the upper reaches of our society than they used to be.  The relations between husbands and wives, Morgan tells us, do not seem to be particularly close, and I learned to my amazement that many of their social events practice gender segregation, with the men and women eating separately.  Some of the men have affairs, but Morgan, perhaps out of loyalty, gives no indication that any of the wives ever do. 

This, then, at the topmost reaches of our society, is the impact of the last 40 years: a society similar to the upper middle class of the 1950s, in which men spent all their time making money and women spent all their time spending it.  Fortunately (I think) for children such as myself, parents then assumed their kids would grow into normal healthy adults in the normal course of events, and entrusted them either to public or much, much cheaper private schools.  We were treated as objects of mass production, not artisanal masterpieces, and given the time to find some things out about ourselves.  Since finance had in mid-century ceased to be a primary source of wealth, the upper middle class had to practice professions or make things, which in turn employed other people.  Great fortunes had been shrinking, not growing, in the first half of the twentieth century, and inequality was both less blatant and less obvious.  Morgan's book shows what the lives of our new educated, moneyed elite are like, and it's far from clear to me that they are doing anyone much good--including, amazingly enough, themselves.


Bozon said...


Great post.

I used to have a copy of "Chimpanzee Politics".

I recommend that old book, British author, to all your readers.

It really puts females in their pre hominid place.

Great illustrations....

Great stuff.

All the best

Bozon said...

So sorry, author is Dutch, not British!

ed boyle said...

I would hope that this is the end of this cycle and that a historical backlash will take place, eliminating the massive wealth and power discrepancies.The rich cannot sell to a vacuum. Income must exist for the masses and not just 30,000 USD per annum if you are very lucky, 100 million meanwhile not in work force. Socialism looks good because capitalism has coopted the regulators, i.e. due to corruption.

I read Mary Poppins to my kids and it looked much like your story, nanny, gardener, cook, maid. Mother does her nails, manages servants and father goes ts to work in City of London financial about which we learn nothing. In 1900 10% of British workers were servants. Lack of household electrical appliances was cause. Their invention freed women to become pink collar workers. Much of economy was not counted in dollars as it was made at home. Eating out, prepared foods, clothing, etc. were done by women.Financialization of traditional activities is a way of putting money into the pockets of businesses so that growth is just a shell game.Cash used to be less important when a farmer made everything he needed to survive and rural and city households could cook, mend, repair and discardable packaging and planned obsolescence wee unknown. Unemployment is not a curse if we can survive without cash dependency.

A 1960s women would have seen such a life in Manhattan as a golden cage and herself as a parakeet. The man's role no less than a hamster in his wheel chasing his own tail. At least I have my freedom. The 1% havee enslaved themselves.