There are two reasons I like forcing college seniors to read Babbitt. One is personal; Babbitt's monologue to his son about choosing his own path in life rather than doing what others expect of him is advice that I feel like the average 21 year old soon-to-be graduate can benefit from hearing. The second is that it allows us to think about the American Dream and how it has changed over time. Some parts of Babbitt's life are foreign to college kids – turns out that people born in 1992 don't really feel that success involves joining the Knights of Columbus and the Elks Lodge – but others still apply. Having a big, gaudy house is still integral to showing other people that you've Made It.
Is it, though? Sometimes I think home ownership is a good investment and a component of Success. Sometimes I think it's a massive con that I'm lucky to have escaped. Then sometimes I think that last one is an elaborate rationalization for the fact that I'll probably never be able to afford one.
If you're in your twenties or thirties today, what is the compelling argument for buying a home? We're supposed to accept as the new normal an economy that offers no long term security and hardly pays a livable wage in the short term. Our political process still encourages home buying; one look at the tax code makes that clear. But from where are we supposed to be getting the incentive, not to mention the down payment, to take on a thirty year financial commitment? It seems counter-intuitive to tell people that their employment situation is basically day to day and then expect them to settle down.