Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
The suburbs are supposed to be the good life, though they don't always feel that way. Growing up, cautiously venturing out into the world, I have been surprised to meet people who are envious of the fact that I grew up in Millburn. It seems surreal to me that the quiet town where I'm from is a fairly exclusive place where people with a certain degree of social advantage bring their families to give their kids every opportunity for success. My high school, which always seemed mediocre to me, is apparently one of the best public schools in the state, or anywhere. Realizing these truths comes with the sinking feeling that it must be worse everywhere else, which pretty much amounts to giving up on humanity. But I don't think that's necessarily true. A place like Millburn is very plugged into the system - and allows relatively smart people straightforward paths to positions of wealth and influence in our society. However, the rich, important people don't necessarily have better lives.
True, when you compare Millburn to one of the poorer, post-industrial towns down the road, the disparity in goodness of life is compelling. But thinking about the country or the world in general: are the only positions master and slave? Are our two options to master society or suffer its brutality? I hope not. Better, I think, to give up on a wealth and influence in exchange for the ability to step back a bit from either end of the (figurative) whip, if possible.
In the wealthy suburbs, it is almost possible to believe that the American system isn't broken. These towns, accessible to maybe the top 15 or 20% of the nation's income earners, present a version of middle class American life operating the way it should, sustained by some delusions of self-sufficiency and social mobility. Fathers and mothers work hard every day and attain prosperity for their families. Kids go to decent public schools where, if they work hard, they can get into a good college, and if they don't, it's ok, they still can go to college. Of course it's a little more complicated than that, but still: neighborhoods are safe, public services are good.
Suburbanites tend to like to identify with "the common man." It's easy to see "the people" progressing naturally from farms or urban neighborhoods to home ownership to modern-day suburban communities, due to the greatness of the American system for those who are willing to work hard. The only problem is that these are the highest earners - doctors, lawyers, financiers, corporate management - living a comfortable middle class lifestyle, so where is the actual middle class in all of this? Here we get into some weird delusions. whether it's the more liberal "we are very fortunate," or the more conservative "anyone who works hard like I did could get to where I am today," there is some need to justify the occasional observation that the vast majority of America isn't living like this. The interactions between wealthy suburbanites and the people in their lives of lower class backgrounds, who are often working suburban service jobs, are especially awkward, because the closely-held delusions simply can't survive a frank conversation across class lines.
One thing you definitely won't hear very often in the wealthy suburbs is any kind of complaint or questioning of the system that has lead to this social arrangement. And why should they complain? They are the successful ones, living "the dream."
It take dissatisfied suburban youths who go to elite colleges where they are exposed to a wider spectrum of social thought as part of a status-elevating liberal education to make these kinds of reflections on their homes.