Bad Punditry on Good Surveys

Pew Research has released its latest study into parenting attitudes in America. The results are sobering:

When asked about their aspirations for their children when they reach adulthood, parents prioritize financial independence and career satisfaction. Roughly nine-in-ten parents say it’s extremely or very important to them that their children be financially independent when they are adults, and the same share say it’s equally important that their children have jobs or careers they enjoy. About four-in-ten (41%) say it’s extremely or very important to them that their children earn a college degree, while smaller shares place a lot of importance on their children eventually becoming parents (20%) and getting married (21%).

This is reflecting a changing attitude in relationship to the punishing economic reality that has been constructed for young people: while marriage and childbearing rates are plummeting, the economic fortunes of young people are plummeting even quicker. One might even say they are related: if it feels impossible to have job stability, going to college will saddle you with tens of thousands of dollars in non-dischargable debt which means you will never feasibly own a home, and your wages are suppressed by the financiers running the economy, and you will never really afford the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to give birth even with health insurance… well, why WOULD you want to have kids?

But more importantly: why is it a surprise that financial issues dominate parental concerns? This is a relatively straightforward story — the American economy has evolved to make the typical markers we used to associate with adulthood (job, career, house, family) structurally impossible for most people — but you’d never know that reading the punditry about this survey. Instead you get stories like this:

That’s the headline Time blared out in covering Pew’s study (this is an edit, too: the previous title, which you can see by hovering your mouse on the browser tab, says “Parent’s Don’t Care If Their Children Have Kids,” which is both greasily sensationalist and substantially incorrect). Their story begins:

Only about a fifth of American parents say it’s important to them that their children get married and have a family**.** This is despite the fact that most parents find raising children to be rewarding and enjoyable, and almost a third of them say that being a parent is the most important part of their identity. What the vast majority of American parents—about 90%—do want for their children is financial independence and a job they enjoy doing.

Again, like the headline, this is both sensationalist and wrong: the Pew study headlines with parents worrying about their children’s mental health and fretting that parenting is far more difficult than they thought. In the sidebar, Pew links a related study that found 25% of American parents struggled to afford food or housing in the past year.

Pew did not ask parents to rank their fears, it only asked for their topline concerns. It’s clear that parenting is broadly viewed as emotionally rewarding according to Pew’s data, it is also clear that it is extremely difficult, to the point of feeling impossible for more and more younger people.

So, why would Time try to portray this study as demonstrating that parents have somehow become money-grubbing spinsters who don’t care about grandkids? There are uncharitable explanations I’m sure you could fill in, but since I am highlighting structural factors in this post I want to offer three structural explanations that can help us think of bigger issues in how we learn about the world.

  1. Journalists are not like the rest of us. For a wide number of reasons, journalists are wealthy compared to the average person. The profession still clings to the pretension that it represents working class people and concerns, but you only need to read a New York Times Cletus Safari to see how fundamentally their writers are disconnected from ordinary people. It takes a lot of family resources to afford the graduate degree from Medill, Mizzou, Columbia, or Annenberg in order to “break in” to the field. People who DO come from less-advantaged backgrounds are frozen out from the field. So, when you do not experience economic marginalization, and your bosses never have, and none of your friends do, it can be hard to see how powerfully money concerns dominate the thinking of poor people.
  2. Timescales are short. I am pretty certain that the writer of this piece had a very short amount of time to write something, and in consultation with their editor went with the easiest, quickest story based off a reading of only the headline and maybe the headers of the study: parents don’t prioritize families and do prioritize money. It’s easy to call this lazy (because it is) but that laziness is probably imposed by the demands of instant publishing, especially at an outlet like Time that is kind of surprising to even exist anymore.
  3. Clickbait is still king. This is related to number 2, but a misleading, sensationalist headline will still get eyeballs on a page, make for a highly shareable social media slug, and drive hate-clicks that make advertisers go “oh good, my ad is actually viewed by people.” Lots of journalists recoil at the idea that clickbait still runs the industry but at smaller or more struggling outlets it very much does. As a practice it has been around for a while — remember William Randolph Hearst! — and its contemporary dominance is more of a return to form than an aberration (the post-WWII focus on neutrality and objectivity, as troubled as those ideas are, was the actual aberration).

So, okay, this isn’t going to be comprehensive and that’s okay. Just looking at these three: journalists themselves are insulated from average folks, they do not have time to think about what they write, and the industry is pulling them in unproductive directions. It’s not a surprise that this would result in bad journalism about a study that is revealing something they are blind to.

It’s not a shock, but it is frustrating nonetheless. There is a real story in this Pew study, about how the economy is fundamentally failing young people in a way that poses long term challenges for us as a society. Perhaps ironically, it represents the same structural blind spots that prevent reporters from really talking about what this survey reveals.

And, while there are a million different ways you can branch off from here into discussing what it means, I at least hope we can take a step back for maybe a second or two, and ask: is this (the forced poverty, opportunity losses, instability, fears, lack of discourse) really what we want?

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