Downward mobility and the disintegration of a family
Financial independence is a means to a bigger end.
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After my last post on money, the gentry and the professional class, I had a bunch of conversations with friends about how folks are working toward financial independence. These were fascinating conversations that gave me a lot to think about. To those of you who reached out, thank you!
But I wanted to keep teasing this idea out because I think in the philosophy I’m grasping at, financial independence is a means to an end, not the end itself. So what is the end goal?
It’s better and more durable relationships, particularly with family. It’s seeing your parents or adult kids more than just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s knowing and having an actual relationship with nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. The stakes, in other words, are more metaphysical than financial.
As it turns out, there’s a useful case study for how this idea can play out: the TV show Modern Family1. And my thesis is this: Modern Family highlights how as a family moves over multiple generations from asset-owning (the “gentry”) to wage-earning (the professional class) they gradually lose their group identity and support circle.
Modern Family starts off as a best-case scenario
I started watching Modern Family a few months ago because I suspected it offered a kind of best-case-scenario for how to have an intergenerational family today. My thinking was that it’s probably impossible now to build the kind of family that thrived in, say, ancient Rome. However, it might be possible to create something like the Modern Family experience in real life today.
Having completed the series, I do indeed think much of the show depicts the kind of thing I’m talking about in this newsletter. It’s about three generations of the Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan, and members of the family have big meals together. They attend each other’s plays and sporting events. They babysit each other’s kids. They’re friends as well as family. It’s a show about the joys of an intergenerational family2.
The show’s family gradually changes its income source — and then breaks up
While I enjoyed watching Modern Family, the further into the series I got the more I noticed something darker: The family gradually moves from asset-owning to wage earning. And in the show’s conclusion (spoiler alert) many members end up moving away from each other. The intergenerational family is reduced to several isolated nuclear units. And in fact some of the finale’s most poignant moments come as the various characters grapple with a lonelier future.
So how does this happen?
Basically, the founder of the family is Jay Pritchett, a wealthy baby boomer3 who started a business, Pritchett’s Closets. It’s a comically niche company, but the idea is that it’s a successful firm in the broader construction genre.
As it turns out, Pritchett’s Closets also serves as the financial foundation of the entire extended clan. Jay’s two adult kids, gen Xers Claire and Mitch, live with their own families nearby, also in expensive areas. Eventually, it’s revealed that Jay actually gave both of his kids the down payments for their houses4. So, Jay’s kids and grandkids were able to live close to him because he paid for them to do so.
Later, Claire goes to work for her dad’s closet company. She steps immediately into a managerial position and is eventually supposed to take over the firm. This is textbook gentry, and it’s worth pondering the unique benefits of this arrangement. For instance, Claire is able to be a stay-at-home mom and a corporate executive because her opportunities spring not from a ever-more-brutal fight in the (alleged) meritocracy, but from her family’s assets.
There are a few references in the show suggesting Claire’s kids might eventually become involved in the business as well. But that never happens.
Instead, Pritchett’s Closets is absorbed into a startup and the family ends its involvement in the company.
And then everyone goes their separate ways.
In the final episode, Mitch and his husband Cam5 move away so Cam can take a new job. Mitch, a lawyer, plans to get a new job of his own when they arrive in their new home. Mitch and Cam were wage earners throughout the series, and their eventual departure highlights the peril of a wage-earning life: There will always be a greener pasture6 somewhere else, and it may well be located far from the people with whom you’re closest. Eventually, you’ll have to choose between your career and your family.
Two of Claire’s millennial kids also disperse in the finale7. Her most professionally promising daughter moves to Switzerland for a research project and her son goes to college in Oregon.
Claire’s oldest daughter, Hailey, is the only member of the family’s third generation who stays in town, and as a result represents the next chapter in the core family’s story.
But Hailey is downwardly mobile. She and her husband lack education, have twin babies, and don’t seem to have any promising career prospects. And because her family has moved from asset-owning to wage earning, she has fewer built-in opportunities and potential windfalls than her parents8. She also lacks the type of support system her parents had; unlike her mother, her own siblings — who might have provided things like free childcare and a social outlet — are gone.
Which is to say, Hailey may ultimately succeed, but doing so will be harder than it was for her mother.
In the end, Modern Family turned out to be a show about how a family moves from the upper middle class to the lower middle class in three generations. And the consequence of that downward mobility isn’t so much a drop in standard of living. It’s the breaking up of the family group. It’s loneliness.
I know Modern Family is just a TV show. But look around. I bet everyone reading this knows a family that has experienced something similar. I can think of half a dozen examples among people I know.
To some extent, this is even the story of my own family; my paternal grandparents owned restaurants. Eventually, they sold those businesses and my dad’s generation are all wage earners. My generation is too, and no one in this family line has achieved the financial success my grandparents enjoyed. We’re all fine and I’m happy with how things are turning out for me personally, but technically we’re downwardly mobile compared to my grandparents. And it’s no coincidence that my dad only rarely sees his brother and I see my cousins on that side even more rarely still. There are many things I love about my family, but this financial part of our story is a cautionary tale.
In other words, the consequences of the past three generations’ financial choices is that we don’t have deep or durable extended family relationships. What a bummer.
In the end I don’t care about the signifiers of class. I don’t want a fancy car. Even if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t buy a Rolex or whatever.
But when I think about my kids — who are now 3, 1 and soon-to-be-born — it breaks my heart to think about only seeing them once or twice a year someday. It breaks my heart to think about only seeing any future grandkids on their annual vacation, or to ponder my kids drifting away from their cousins to the point that they’re strangers. These are the outcomes I’d like to avoid, but over time I’ve come to realize that there’s a relationship between how durable a family’s connections are and how that family thinks about money.
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Note: As a heads up, I think I’m going to move to something closer to an every-other-week schedule here. Part of that decision has to do with the fact that I missed a few weeks while having COVID but didn’t seen a drop off in engagement. For that, I thank you all. But also I find that I’m increasingly busy. We’re getting ready for another kid, there are three trees dumping millions of leave in my yard that need raking, I have some travel coming up, etc.
Headlines to check out this week:
“The difficulties of living alone tend to lie more on a societal level, outside the realm of personal decision making. For one thing, having a partner makes big and small expenditures much more affordable, whether it’s a down payment on a house, rent, day care, utility bills, or other overhead costs of daily life. One recent study estimated that, for a couple, living separately is about 28 percent more expensive than living together.”
“Adopting a baby or toddler is much more difficult than it was a few decades ago. Of the nearly 4 million American children who are born each year, only about 18,000 are voluntarily relinquished for adoption. Though the statistics are unreliable, some estimates suggest that dozens of couples are now waiting to adopt each available baby. Since the mid-1970s—the end of the so-called baby-scoop era, when large numbers of unmarried women placed their children for adoption—the percentage of never-married women who relinquish their infants has declined from nearly 9 percent to less than 1 percent.
In 2010, Bethany Christian Services, the largest Protestant adoption agency in the U.S., placed more than 700 infants in private adoptions. Last year, it placed fewer than 300. International adoptions have not closed the gap. The number of children American parents adopt each year from abroad has declined rapidly too, from 23,000 in 2004 (an all-time high) to about 3,000 in 2019.”
“But the most important thing is to prioritize the family as an important place for public investment — to convince liberals to care about the birth rate and the marriage rate as fundamental indicators of social health, and to persuade conservatives that policymaking can help build the foundation for any kind of domestic renaissance.”
I’m not here to critique the artistic merits of the show, though I do tend to think critics are right that the first seasons of Modern Family were good while the later seasons saw a decline in quality. I know there were also debates about representation in the show at the time. All these various debates are interesting and I enjoy following them, but are beyond the scope of this particular post.
At the time Modern Family debuted, the “modern” part of the title was sometimes understood as a reference to its inclusion of a gay couple, or the fact that the family patriarch had remarried a Columbian immigrant. But in retrospect, the thing that feels most novel now isn’t the for-its-day progressive representation, but just how integrated the three different generations were.
Jay lives in a modernist house, drives expensive cars, belongs to a country club etc. His wife, Gloria, also constantly jokes about and fends off accusations that she’s a gold digger. In some episodes, Jay is simply described explicitly as rich.
Lots of shows (Friends, Sex and the City, etc.) show characters living in places that they might not be able to afford in real life. Modern Family shows three generations living in LA’s extremely expensive West Side, but deserves credit for offering a plausible way they could afforded such a lifestyle: a gift of money from a wealthy parent. And as it turns out, this is something that is increasingly common in the real world.
Mitch and Cam appear to live in West Hollywood for most of the series, where the average home value is $918,043 according to Zillow.
In Mitch and Cam’s case, they literally are going to greener pastures because they’re moving to closer to Cam’s farm-owning family. Though the financial arrangements of that family aren’t explored in detail, I do think it’s interesting that the characters gravitate to a new asset center. I don’t think that was an intentional theme of the show, but it’s notable that as the writers hunted for believable plot lines that’s what they hit on.
I appreciate that TV shows like to have a sense of finality, and having everyone move away was done for dramatic purposes — not to highlight the challenges of wage earning. But I’ve seen similar things happen in the lives of many families I know, including my own. So this ending rings true to me, even if it was chosen simply to be dramatic on TV.
Hailey’s dad and Claire’s husband is Phil Dunphy. He’s a real estate agent, which is a profession that sort of walks the line between wage earning and asset owning. I could write an entire post just on Phil’s profession, and it could be that it ends up as a multigenerational enterprise. But that’s not really ever teased out in the show itself.