Monday, March 20, 2023

The Decline of the Family Empire

Adult children should not be kept as pets.

You may recall the recent online viral video of a "young" man (age 38) in New Jersey, who was arrested for threatening to kill a Sheriff in Florida.  He lived with his mother, who announced, "They're here!" as the Police arrived, as if this was something she had long expected.  And she probably did.

What was odd about the whole thing (well, there was a lot of odd) was that the Sheriff was taking a stand against neo-Nazism and apparently this pissed off this living-with-mom-always-online dude.  How on earth is Nazism going to make his life better?  It is just another prime example of The Pariah Mentality - a chance to sacrifice your life for imaginary internet bonus points from your "chums" on 4chan (or 8chan or whatever) who are likely Russian trolls.

Another article recently claims that more young people than ever before are living with their parents, or some such nonsense.  This fails to take into account, I think, the agrarian society we used to live in, a hundred years ago or more, where just about everyone lived with their parents until (and if) they married. It also doesn't account for cultural differences - many recent immigrants are from cultures where young people live at home until (and if) they are married.  The article posits this as an economic problem, though, when I think it may be more of a matter of some young people taking the easy way out.

Some young people argue that the "cost of housing!" makes it too hard for them to move out.  And if you are living in your parents' house, rent-free and banking your paycheck for the day when you can afford to move out or even buy a home of your own, then good for you.  But I have witnessed, firsthand, many young people who live with their parents and then spend all their income on consumer electronics, new cars, restaurant meals, and so on and so forth - saving nary a penny.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I saw an attempt to discredit a stupid online "meme" that posited that "Millenials" (or some such punching-bag) were spending $900 on a new iPhone, but couldn't afford to save up for a down payment on a house (or whatever - it is a stupid meme).  But what was even more idiotic was the "response" that "Well, we don't have $900 to spend on a new iPhone - so we pay for it in $27 monthly installments!"

Ugh.  I buy used Samsung Galaxies on eBay for $99 to $199 each and pay cash.   Of course, I am not concerned about impressing the girls with my new iPhone or live in fear that my texts may appear in green bubbles - and thus be mocked by strangers.  Or imagine having no tattoos!  It would be like walking around naked for chrissakes!   I am not saying that all young people are this stupid, only that I was that stupid at that age, and not much has changed since I allegedly grew up.

And again, I think a lot of this "Let's feel sorry for ourselves, we have it so bad!" mentality is spread online by trolls who profit for your depression.  Russia for starters.  Commercial enterprises also know that depression results in more sales - of everything.

But I digress.....

From what I can see, families have this three-generation dynamic.  The first generation is born into poverty and then struggles to make good.  Their children - the second generation - is exhorted by their parents to improve their lot in life.  They get jobs, start business, buy a house, accumulate some wealth, and have children of their own.  This third generation is born into relative comfort - if not outright riches - and is spoiled by their parents who say, "I want you to have all the things I never had when I was growing up!"

The third generation has to deal with the decision matrix of inherited wealth.  If your parents are wealthy enough that you can "get by" on their largess and live comfortably for the rest of your life on an inheritance when they die, well, why bother trying hard and taking risks, when you can sit in an easy chair and relax?   And many people "do the math" on this and decide to take it easy, instead of working hard.

If your parents let you do this, it is so much easier to fall into this trap.  Some parents secretly like to lord over the failed lives of their children.  I've had parents report - with almost apparent glee - about what lazy good-for-nothing layabouts their children are.  Although the stereotype of the live-at-home 30-something is that of an "incel" type "neckbeard" male, women are more often subject to this form of parental abuse.  As noted in the book The Millionaire Next Door, many successful men view their daughters as damaged goods who will require support for life.  And I know of many, many daughters who, while not living at home, live a life subsidized by, or in fact paid for entirely, by fathers or even brothers or uncles or helpful Grandmas.

This three-generation pattern seems to be fairly consistent, from what I can see.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean, starting with my own family. My Dad's father (Grandfather Bell) was on the tail-end of this three generation pattern.  His Grandfather came to America as an immigrant from Ireland (or Scotland - the records are unclear) with not a penny in his pocket.  He struggled.  His son did well, and by the third generation, the "Bell Brothers" were running a Maxwell and later, Buick dealership in New Jersey (Note:  There is a Bell Buick in New Jersey today, but it is of no relation).  My Grandfather sort of coasted and his own brothers eventually threw him out of the dealership, as he was a chronic drunk.  The cycle is primed to begin again.'

Enter my Dad, who is born into this abusive nightmare of violence and poverty.  He vows "never to go hungry again!" and gets good grades in school and gets accepted to MIT - as a business major.  After the war, he changes his religion to something more palatable to the corporate suite, and marries what he thinks is a girl from an upper-class family (but itself removed by one generation from poverty).  He climbs the corporate ladder and has three children who are want for nothing in life - private schools, college educations, etc.

And like clockwork, this third generation falls down the economic ladder.  My elder siblings, raised in the 1960's, "renounce materialism" and seem to intentionally sabotage their own lives.  My late sister - again, following the pattern - lived on handouts from my Dad her whole life.

Her children seem to be following the pattern yet again.  As the "second" generation, they are (largely) pulling themselves up from poverty and becoming successful.  Their kids will  end up living in their basement and smoking pot and playing video games.   It is a perfect machine.

Or take my Grandmother Bell's family.  As I noted before, they came over here as Swiss immigrants in their teens (early teens) and worked as servants on the Steinway estate on Long Island.  That is where they met and became Mr. and Mrs. Wilby and moved to Little Silver, New Jersey, buying 100 acres of farmland, back when that part of New Jersey was farms - and not a bedroom community.  Great-grandfather Wilby built a house (and by built, I mean he put it together, himself, one nail at a time) and raised a family of four daughters and a son.

Once again, the pattern continues, although this time, in two generations, not three.  Three of those daughters apparently never left the house.  They were still there when I was a kid going to visit my "great aunts" who were perpetually old.  I think my great uncle moved back in with them later on.  I am not sure if he had any kids or not.  My Grandmother escaped and married my alcoholic Grandfather - but even she eventually returned (kicking and screaming) back to that family homestead.  When you have so much handed to you, the incentive to leave home diminishes rapidly.

But what about my Mother's side?  Same deal.  The Wiggens and Platts came here in the 1700's and cycled through this three-generation deal.  My Great-grandfather Wiggins killed himself in his 30's, leaving his wife to raise three kids on her own, which she did by trading second mortgages - which was unusual for a woman in the late 1800's to be doing.  Her children all went to college, including my Grandfather, who ended up as a lawyer and mayor of Larchmont, New York.  Once again, the pattern - raised in poverty, he vowed to do better.  His kids?  Not so much.  While they were not living in their parent's basement, they did rely to some extent on an inheritance (which indeed, was fought over) and were not as successful as their Dad had been.

It is a pattern, but of course, not a perfect one.  And no, you are not destined to follow such a pattern.  I was able to break free from it, to some extent, myself.  I saw that my siblings were sort of going nowhere in neutral and decided to start taking my life and career more seriously.  I finished my degree, got into law school, and the rest, as they say, is history.  I broke free from the pattern and was lauded by my family for being successful resented for not lowering myself to their level.

And right there you see the problem and how the trap can ensnare you.  The crab-bucket mentality raises its ugly head.  When my Grandmother Bell started dating men and going to speakeasies in New York City in the 1920's, her spinster sisters told her, "Who do you think  you are!  Your behavior is scandalous!"   And no doubt what they really meant was Who do you think you are, leaving the nest, having a boyfriend, getting married, raising children?  You should be staying home with us for the rest of your life!

Sounds weird, but it is true.  Families are weird and a lot of this shit is way under the radar.

Look at the Trump family, for example.  Fred Trump makes millions in real estate and his Number One Son says, "Dad, I just want to pilot airplanes" - a safe job that pays well, but certainly isn't a millionaire-maker.  Fred Trump Sr. is left with Little Donnie as his successor and everyone knows Little Donnie was dropped on his head as a baby.

But Little Donnie grows up and inherits a pile of money and throws it at one ill-conceived venture after another.  He would have made more money putting it in a mutual fund.  But he does find success as a "Reality TeeVee" star - and licenses his "brand" for millions.

His kids?  Ne'er-do-wells who don't venture far from the family home or business.   None of them become independently successful outside of the orbit of Trumpworld.  And once Trump is gone for good, it is likely they will fade from the limelight, quietly living off their inheritances, from Dad, which divided by six, will be a lot less than they think.  And again, they are choosing what to them will seems to be an optimal outcome.  After all, they know what happened to their Uncle who decided not to follow his Dad in the family business!

The list goes on and on.  I know so many people who are successful in life - and by that, I mean a comfortable middle-class existence - who regale me with tales of failed sons living in the basement or how they pay the rent on their perpetually single daughter.  And they say this almost with pride, as if having children as chattel is some sort of perverse luxury, which in a way, I guess, it might be.

Many on the far-right are decrying the demise of the American family, by which they mean, the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant family.  And maybe there is a nugget of truth to this - it seems that the big wasp-y families of yore are going by the wayside, with successive generations having fewer - if any - children.  Meanwhile the worst sort of people are  squirting out children like litters of puppies.

For centuries, people have worried that the best and brightest of humans would die out, as the poorest and least of us have dozens of children.  It was part of the Eugenics movement.  It drove racist arguments about [fill in the blank name of minority group] "taking over" the country.  It drives arguments about "miscegenation" and other nonsense.  It is the same racist arguments made concerning "The Irish Problem" back in the days of the potato famine.

Of course, on the flip side, the same arguments can be made.  European "royalty" was so inbred that the successive generations were prone to bizarre genetic illnesses and of course, craziness.  And maybe right there is why this three-generation pattern occurs.  As I alluded to above, mental illness sort of ran in my Mother's family (and landed on her, exactly) and that in part kept the successive generations from building upon success.

And maybe that is not a bad thing.  People come up from the poorest backgrounds, regardless of race or religion or upbringing.  It isn't common, but I have seen people raise themselves up from the rural trailer park or the inner-city ghetto and strive for greatness - or at least more than their parents' ever hoped to achieve.

Maybe too, that is where the miscegenisists and racists are wrong - interbreeding of various races and types of people doesn't weaken the strain, but improves it.  We have bred generations of dogs to have certain traits and looks - and often, too, genetic defects that cause premature death or disease.  This is particularly true for inbred dogs from puppy mills.   On the other hand, a cross-bred "mutt" from the pound is more likely to live a long, healthy life, as their genetic makeup is more diverse and tends to suppress those recessive genes that carry defects.  Perhaps - I don't know.  I am not a biochemist.

And of course, there are exceptions to the rule - or is there a rule at all, or is my brain merely seeing patterns because it is a neural network programmed to find patterns?  There are some families who build dynastic wealth, with each generation building upon the success of the previous one.   It does happen, but it isn't all that common.

All that being said, is there any way to avoid this trap, either as a parent or a child?  I think so, and it begins at home.  Whenever you read a story online about some "kid" (age 32) doing something odious like a mass-shooting or organizing a Nazi rally, it often turns out they are living in their parents' basement and Mom and Dad are basically doing nothing to change this, and in fact, are enabling it.  "Gee, son, you need me to sign these documents so you can get an AR-15?  Where's my pen!"  "Hey thanks Mom, for taking me to the shooting range!  Now I don't have to get up close to murder you!"

People read about these tragedies and often it is the parents who are pilloried for letting this happen. And it didn't happen overnight, either. It took years of coddling and support to create the perfect parasite, and when they turn on you - and society at large - it is of no surprise.  Parents often identify one or more of their children as "special needs" kids, even if the kids are not special and what they need really is a kick in the pants.

Of course, in some cases, these kids (and I use that term loosely as a 30-year-old is not a "kid" except emotionally in these circumstances) are indeed mentally ill and that is tragic.  But it is also dangerous, too.  Mental health advocates like to argue that mentally ill people are not a threat to society at large, but are more of a threat to themselves or more likely to be a victim of violence.  Maybe that is the case, but that is cold comfort to the person assaulted and maybe killed by some sainted homeless person who gets off on pushing Asian women in front of subway trains.  Google it, it is a thing.

Early intervention is probably a good idea - but again, the stigma of mental illness may prevent some people from seeking such help.  The craziness of parents isn't much help, either.  I know two young men driven to madness when their parents just could not accept they were gay.  One "Dad" actually had his son treated with aversion therapy - electric shocks - to chase away the gay.  It didn't work, and now he is into S&M as a result (just kidding about the latter part).

In other words, sometimes the parents are clearly to blame as they are crazy themselves (particularly religious crazy).  But also parents can be blameworthy for not pushing the child out of the nest when the time comes (as my parents did) and not letting the child back into the nest when they discover the cold, cruel world is not as cozy as their parents' basement lair.

As a child, there are things you can do as well - starting with not settling for a basement lair.  Yes, it is expensive to live on your own. Welcome to reality. When I was in my 20's, it appalled me that nearly half my income went to paying rent.  I worked at what I thought was a good job and at the end of every month, I was pretty flat broke.  But I realized that independence comes with a price, and if you want to have your own life, well, you have to pay.

As I noted in another recent posting, the cost of living has gone up, but in reality, it is not much worse (or perhaps even better) than when I was in my 20's.  When you factor in inflation, the apartment Mark and I lived in back in the 1980's costs about the same today.  And no, wages haven't "stagnated" that much - if at all.   The same jobs Mark and I had in the 1980s pay more today when you factor in inflation.   Again, I think we are being sold a bill of goods by the Russian trolls.  "Everything bad, comrade!  Might as well give up!"  It is right out of Sun Tsu's Art of War.

Again, the easiest way to cut your rent in half is to simply get a roommate or preferably a spouse.   But you can't get a spouse when you live in your Mother's basement.  So the basement lair becomes a dead-end trap.  A young man moves in, sets up his game console, and uses his 100% disposable income for pizza delivery.  He spends all day online becoming a pariah and gets fatter and fatter and more and more slovenly - and then complains that "females" won't date him because they are all whores and materialistic.  The basement is a deadly trap - get out of the house.

On the other hand, if you struggle to become independent and show you can support yourself, well, chicks dig that, because biologically, they have a uterus and deep down need stability and certainty in their lives, if they are ever to reproduce.  It's in our genes, our hormones - this need to survive.  No one wants to data a Momma's boy or an incel.  And incels are not "involuntary" - they moved into that basement willingly!

It is possible to avoid the "bounce-back" kid trap or becoming an incel-in-the-basement.   So why do parents let kids move back in, and why do kids settle for so little in life?  Comfort is the reason.  It is easy to fall into these traps because confrontation is difficult and by the time your kid wants to move back into the basement (with his swords and guns) you might be a little afraid of him as well.  I have read online of parents setting their kid up with an apartment and paying the first years' rent and then moving away leaving no forwarding address.  That is kind of extreme, but it illustrates the dangers involved.  Better to address this early on.  But again, this involves confrontation, and many parents, after one-too-many shouting matches, just give up and let their kids free-range and kick the can down the road another year or two.

For the kids, well, it is again comfort.  Why struggle with rent when you can have all the cool stuff that your buddies all have, and live rent-free?

Comfort is deceiving, though, and what we think of as comfortable is not.  People claim they like pillowy-soft mattresses and then complain, years later, of back problems.  People claim they like "yummy" foods that are best served at an 8-year-old's birthday party (pizza, burgers, cake, ice cream, etc) and then years later complain about obesity-related health problems.  What we think of as comfortable is not.

Doing the hard thing sounds like less fun, but leads to greater happiness down the road.  Yes, it is comfortable to wallow in your own crapulance - we call that "depression."  It takes motivation to get up and do things.

In other words, it pays to get outside of your comfort zone and do the hard things in life, whether it is addressing your kid's life going off the rails (before it is too late) or booting his ass out of the house when he reaches the age of maturity.  As a kid, it means giving up the comfort of being a kid and moving on to the adult world and realizing you have to make it on your own and this is some serious shit.

And not some stupid video game.