"Coming Apart" by Charles Murray

Book Summary:

“Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” by Charles Murray explains why white America has become fractured and divided by education and class.

Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, this book demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship—divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad.

The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.

Book Lessons:

1) Lifestyle differences between upper & lower class Americans

Author Charles Murray writes that to see the lifestyles differences between Americans, all one has to do is visit one public elementary school and one private elementary school:

  • At the public school, most of the cars will be American brands, while at the elite school, the majority will be foreign.

  • At the public school, most mothers will be in their late 20s or early 30s, in the private school, most will be in their 40s and almost no mothers will be in their 20s.

  • At the mainstream school, most parents will be overweight, while at the elite school, the parents will be a lot thinner since the upper class pays a lot of attention to health and fitness.

  • Additionally, the upper class parents rarely eat fast food or smoke.

  • Upper class parents are also usually well-informed and read the WSJ, NYT or listen to NPR.

  • The average American watches about 35 hours of TV per week while upper class American usually watch less than 10 hours per week.

  • For mainstream Americans, a trip to Europe or Asia is a big deal and something that they many never do even once, for upper class Americans, foreign vacations are a normal part of their lives–they are usually traveling the globe either for business or pleasure.

  • Upper class Americans can usually work from anywhere as long as they have a cell phone and laptop, meanwhile for the average American, they have a time to punch in and out and a physical location where they have to be during that time.

2) The 4 Drivers of the New Upper Class

1) The increasing market value of brains:

Over the last century, brains have become much more valuable in the marketplace. And since the growth of higher-tech, there has been an increasing demand for people who can improve and exploit the technology.

Secondly, as business decisions become more and more complex, the more businesses rely on people who can navigate through difficult situations that require an advanced cognitive ability.

Lastly, the bigger the stakes, the greater the value of marginal increments in skills. The dollar value of a manager who can increase his division’s profits by 10% instead of 5% will be rewarded handsomely over the manager who can only increase it by half.

2) Wealth:

Given the information above, it’s no surprise to learn that people working in managerial occupations and professions have made a lot more money in 2010 than in 1960. Meanwhile, real family income for families in the middle was flat. Just about all of the benefits of economic growth from 1970-2010 went to people in the upper half of the income distribution.

More wealth gave the upper class more access to privacy–in the form of concierge and security guards, a gated community or a high-end suburb insulated from average Americans.

3) The College Sorting Machine:

Murray writes that people like to be around other people who understand them and whom they can talk to. This creates a cognitive segregation as smart people seek out other smart people and this is exactly what happens in colleges.

About 80% of students at “Tier 1” schools came from families in the top quartile of socioeconomic status, while only 2% came from the bottom quartile. To put bluntly, the children of parents who are well-educated and affluent get into the best schools because their parents are well educated and can afford to pay for a better education.

4) Homogamy:

Homogamy refers to the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics. Recent trends show that college graduates are more likely to marry college graduates and high school dropouts are more likely to marry other high school dropouts.

Since college brings people together around the time they begin to look for marriage partners, students tend to marry those of a similar level of education and thus the very smart men are more likely to marry the very smart women and have very smart kids and the cycle repeats.

3) A tale of two neighborhoods

Imagine two fictional neighborhoods, one called Belmont–where the people are mostly in the upper-middle class, and the other called Fishtown–where most of the residents are part of the working-class.

What are some differences between the two classes?

  • In Belmont, nearly 90% of people (whites ages 30-49) were married, compared to approximately 50% in Fishtown.

  • About 8% of people in Belmont never married, compared to nearly 25% of people in Fishtown.

  • Roughly 5% of people in Belmont have gone through a divorce, compared to nearly 30% of people in Fishtown.

  • About 70% of married couples in Belmont describe their marriage as very happy, compared to about 55% of married couples in Fishtown.

  • About 80% of whites in state and federal prisons came from Fishtown while fewer than 2% came from Belmont.

  • About 55% of Belmont citizens attend worship services, compared to 45% for Fishtown residents.

  • Nearly 35% of men in Fishtown don’t make enough to put themselves and one other adult above the poverty line, compared to 5% of men in Belmont.

The book goes on to compare the residents of Belmont and Fishtown in many more categories including self-reported happiness, helpfulness, trustworthiness, fairness and more.

Throughout all of the surveys a common theme emerges. Life is better in almost every aspect imaginable in the upper class community of Belmont, while the working-class citizens of Fishtown experience more hardships and difficulties.

Book Review:

The book may be called, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010” but it is actually about class in America, not race. Author Charles Murray explores the increasing polarization between classes and how each group is becoming radically different.

Essentially, the book highlights the different lifestyles between the top and bottom of Americans, with the powerful upper class surrounded only by their own kind and ignorant about life in mainstream American, while the lower class suffers the erosion of sustainable jobs, core family values and a good community life.

Overall this book was easy to read and understand, especially since the author has graphs throughout the book to help readers visualize the data from surveys and research.

If you’re interested in learning about the current state of America and how different classes live their lives in the U.S., then this book is for you.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

If you’re interested in this book, you can get it here.

If you want to get the audiobook version, click here for 2 free audiobooks here.

After reading 100+ books, here are the books I recommend reading: