Monday, February 9, 2009

Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley is University Professor of the Social Sciences and Acting Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. He also teaches at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and Slate, among other publications. His books include Honky; Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America; and The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.

From Conley's interview with Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski about his latest book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety:

What do you think it represents that our new president, Barack Obama, refuses to give up his BlackBerry?

The BlackBerry for Obama is just the tip of the iceberg for him. We had the man in the gray flannel suit who quit work at 5 p.m. in our last president. Obama reflects more accurately how professionals of his generation are living, both in keeping the BlackBerry, and because he works at home, which happens to be the oldest home office in the United States, the White House.

The Obamas are going to be an interesting first couple with a career woman in the White House, as opposed to Laura Bush, who was again a throwback to the 1950s, when only 17 percent of moms worked outside the home. And they have an interesting solution as well, which is to import Michelle's mom to have an extra adult to manage the kids. So we're going to identify with Obama in a way that we couldn't with Bush.

You talk about how educated professionals, especially parents, have this feeling they should be everywhere at once. What do you mean?

It's great that work is flexible and there's an increased amount of autonomy for career professionals. But we are also ruled by this abstract boss called "the work" or the "in box." In past economies, whether we're talking about modern industrial capitalism or the craftsman, people were limited by daylight and raw materials and were producing something real and physical. Knowledge workers are not limited by any of those pesky things as long as there is an electric plug, your phone is charged or you have a wireless connection for your laptop. There is work you could be doing 24/7, or feel like you want to do, or should do.

If you're out making social capital -- connections -- which are increasingly important, maybe you feel guilty you're not home with your kids. If you're home with your kids, maybe you're not completely there because you're sneaking the BlackBerry under the dining room table. Or you're somewhere else in your head because you're thinking about the 101 things that you have to respond to before midnight. We have autonomy but we have also been boxed in and pulled apart by it.
Read the complete interview.

The Page 99 Test: Elsewhere, U.S.A.

--Marshal Zeringue