The New “Two Cultures” Problem

by Paul Mackintosh

A recent article in the New York Times, “When Grandma Can’t Be Bothered”, about grandparents who have limited interest in being involved with the care of their grandchildren, drew an enormous response represented by the  hundreds of selected comments at the Times website. What is most striking about the published comments is the absence of middle ground: either the readers seem astonished and disappointed, even incredulous, concerning the attitudes of the grandparents; or they applaud and defend these grandparents for an attitude they regard as perfectly reasonable.

The article led with the story of Marian Robinson’s decision, widely portrayed as heroic in the US media, to come and live at the White House in order to help the President and the First Lady raise Mrs. Robinson’s granddaughters.  But if the piece was written in the interests of balance, it was hardly necessary: the tone of the coverage of Mrs. Robinson’s decision seemed to acknowledge that hers was a level of devotion not widely shared by American grandparents as a group. Indeed, it is tempting to see the phenomenon of the healthy, wealthy, and too-busy American grandparent(s) as one more bit of evidence that the so-called “Greatest Generation” in the United States was followed by the Worst.

On the other hand, it’s worth wondering whether the grandparents aren’t being scapegoated here. For example, the phenomenon of the (childless) aunt or uncle who “can’t be bothered” might as easily have been the subject of an article. And might the unwillingness to be inconvenienced by grandchildren, nephews and nieces be but a special case of a general ambivalence Americans seem to have concerning the attention that must be paid to their children? Consider the verse from Randy Newman’s wonderful portrait, “My Country”:

“Now your children are your children
Even when they’re grown
When they speak to you
You got to listen to what they have to say
But they all live alone now
They have TVs of their own
But they keep on coming over anyway
And much as I love them
I’m always kind of glad when they go away”
Randy Newman, “My Country,” Bad Love (Dreamworks, 1999)

Indeed, one could go further and recall that the particular design of AT&T’s famous “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign (1979) was motivated in large part by the finding that the reason people didn’t call their family members long-distance more often was that they didn’t really like them so much. Perhaps the grandmother who can’t be bothered is therefore taking a bad rap for a culture that encourages a general sort of “bad love” between the generations.

Yet something has changed. Statistically speaking, the comparative economic circumstances of the generations in America have changed significantly since today’s grandparents were themselves young parents. Whether measured by net worth or the prospects for a happy, healthy life, today’s grandparents are very often better off than their children. When these grandparents were young parents themselves, their parents were most often not better off in this way.

The consequences of this change in comparative economic circumstance have been emotionally, even if not materially, devastating. Not only are today’s grandparents often healthier and more active than were their parents at their age, but they often enjoy a standard of living that their own children believe themselves unlikely to enjoy, now or ever. Recognizing this situation, young parents might be forgiven the attitude that their elders, who so obviously neglected to make sure the next generation would have greater opportunities than they did, should at least be attentive, helpful grandparents.

What is interesting about this source of friction between the generations is that it merges with the rise in the number of childless couples, and the recent disappearance of great amounts of wealth, to amplify a fundamental conflict between two different cultures: couples with children and couples without. With less money to leave their children (much less their grandchildren), the grandparents generation in the US will continue to use their considerable political force to oppose cuts in their own considerable health-care opportunities, as well as increases in taxes that don’t benefit them directly. We have already seen cuts in education and child health-care spending in many states (including Rhode Island) without comparable cuts affecting older adults. But childless couples, also facing difficult economic times and worries about the future, may find themselves agreeing with their parents on tax and health-care policies. Couples with children will then find themselves in a difficult bind: not wanting to see their parents and siblings suffer, but also wanting their children to have bright prospects for the future.

This is the new “two cultures problem” and the fact that some Republican leaders have tried to portray the investment spending proposed by President Obama  as somehow burdensome for future generations — when it is only burdensome for those whose taxes must now support such spending — is just the latest sign that this new two cultures problem is a very serious problem indeed. Fifty years ago, C. P. Snow gave a lecture about a “two cultures” problem that he believed concerned not only the future of education, but the future of rich and the poor nations throughout the world. His subject, of course, was not people with children and people without, but rather the asymmetrical valuation of science and literature in education, and its unfortunate consequences. This new two cultures problem will make Snow’s science-humanities worry seem like child’s play, but two lines from the conclusion of Snow’s lectures apply to the current problem just as well:

“Closing the gap between our cultures is a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical. When those two senses have grown apart, then no society is going to be able to think with wisdom.”

C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1959), p. 53.

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