DRMacIver's Notebook

Examples of missing support networks

Examples of missing support networks

I did a popular tweet:

People are, quite reasonably, asking me for examples beyond the really obvious one of parenting.

In truth, I do think my tweet is overly simplistic, and there's a lot more going on. I wrote it partly because I'm living on my own at the moment and really don't like it, and I'm soon going to be living in a much more extended household and very much looking forward to it, and just the general ease of being relied upon and being able to rely on other people for the little things, and the changes I'm expecting (not, I think, to an unwarranted degree - it's different, but it's far from the first time I've lived with others) are many and small, so pointing at specific examples feels almost beside the point.

Nevertheless, here are a few big examples. It's not a terribly well thought out list, this is just off the top of my head. It feels more pervasive than these examples would suggest, as I think this is often an aggregate of many small things.

One of the examples that often comes up that makes me think about this is that if you look at a lot of past (and to some degree current) examples of extremely successful scientists etc. who published a million books, it turns out the "trick" behind their productivity was that they certainly had their wife acting as their personal secretary and possibly an entire household because they were aristocracy.

This is a super privileged position of course, but when you look at people trying to achieve similar things today they certainly aren't in that super privileged position but are trying to achieve the same things.

You see this at work too - e.g. most positions you would previously have secretaries, admin staff, etc. helping you out, and you would be able to rely on your housewife keeping home for you.

This isn't a "feminism is bad" take don't worry. But it's important to bear in mind that the workload and assumptions of most jobs are designed around the idea that keeping house, life admin, etc. is something someone else is doing for you.

Also on the work front there was much more in the way of apprenticeships and mentorships, and the expectation that you would have a long-term career at a given place got you (in theory, and sometimes also in practice) a lot more support from a network of people at work.

The gig economy in which everyone is an independent contractor is the ultimate version of stripping this community of support away at work.

From the consumer side, companies were often part of your support network in a way they no longer are, with increasingly large amounts of shadow work where things that you could previously get help on are now your responsibility, increasing your workload.

On top of this, there's plenty of absent general community support stuff - having friends you can call on to help you out with a task (e.g. my "oh shit how do I get a table upstairs?" recently), or who will check up on you when you're ill, or whatever is much harder than it should be and historically often was (and to some degree still is in smaller communities, but my impression is that even there it's much less of a thing now).

In general one of the big functions of support networks is that they absorb variance - even things that you're fine to do on your own 90-95% of the time, you sometimes need someone else to pick up the slack when things go bad.

Emotional support is like this too. "Go to therapy" is a way of making an individual responsiblity of emotional problems that often need a whole community to support you. Often historically (and perhaps currently? I'm not very familiar with religious culture except second hand, but my impression this is at least less true than it used to be) this would be a religious community. You'd have your priest, but you'd also have other members of the congegration to help you out.

Regardless of the religious content, when you're having a bad time you should be able to draw on a community of people who have your back, and heart emojis on social media when you sadpost doesn't quite cut it.

Distributed trust is another one. I've complained about the problem of e.g. how to find a good plumber before, but historically this is something you solve by asking your community. Communities maintain social knowledge and help you figure out how to navigate the world.

One of the discussions in the replies to my tweet is about housework and cooking and such. I think this is ambiguously an example - an extended family living under one roof does absolutely count as a support network for doing this, but in the middle class UK/USA cultures I'm most familiar with the lack of these is only "modern" in the sense that it's a 20th century trend. The actual solution we've had more recently which is now also gone was generally housewives again. With both partners working, or someone living alone or with flatmates with whom they don't really share a life, you're implicitly trying to do the work of two people. Not a "large" support network, but support nonetheless.

A lot of these have "replacements" from technology or the market. I think it's good that those exist, and it's good that people can do more as individuals, but they are far from a complete replacement for a full support network, and based on the slightly overwhelming amount of responses this tweet got, it seems like other people feel similarly.