Anxious Times in an American Suburb

by Rachel Heiman

One afternoon, while working as an “ethnographic babysitter” during fieldwork on middle class anxieties amid the lead up to the economic crisis, I was driving 11-year old Doug to soccer practice and then to guitar lessons. At one point I asked him the usual “How was school today?” question. In an overwhelmed voice he vented, “It’s so annoying that we have to go to school and be so busy when we’re young. Then, we have to spend the rest of our life working all the time.” I wasn’t surprised to hear these words from Doug. His extracurricular schedule was intense, and many parents in his suburban New Jersey town commuted three hours round trip to work each day—common occurrences among the insecure and aspiring middle classes. What did amaze me was what he uttered next: he wished we had “a society like communism because they don’t have to work so much.”

I wasn’t sure where Doug got his understanding of communism, though this potential seed of radicalism was striking. That is, until a few months later when he walked in from school and asked me for stock tips. His dad had just opened an E*Trade account for him to learn how to invest; his first mission was to make enough to buy a car for himself when he turned 17. I curiously asked Doug what happened to his interest in communism. He didn’t remember having made the comment. In fact, he seemed shocked that he would have said it since he’d rather be busy than bored.

Amid research for my forthcoming book, Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb, I found many such moments when class anxieties fueled entrepreneurial sentiments, practices, and purchases that replaced longings for a supportive state. In its place emerged temporary feelings of security that often ultimately made families (and their neighbors) less secure. This is, in a way, the neoliberal culmination of the ideological plan for postwar suburbs. As famed homebuilder William Levitt infamously remarked during the Cold War, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”

 

Rachel Heiman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at The New School and author of Driving After Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb, which will release in January 2015 and is now available for pre-order.