Despite decades of battering by divorce and the proliferation of single-parent households, the family remains a source of inexhaustible fascination. The topic is of obsessive, often prurient interest, permeating every genre of popular culture, from the endless stream of sitcoms featuring a mildly troubled or outright dysfunctional household, to pop psychology and crime journalism plumbing the depths of the family romance to account for murder and mayhem (not to mention the guilty pleasure many of us have taken in following the differential fortunes of Jimmy and Billy Carter and Bill and Roger Clinton; the tragic but fascinating Kennedy family history; and, of course, the rise of George W. Bush–the least likely to succeed of Barbara and George Senior’s kids–who overcame mediocre school grades, multiple business failures, alcoholism, verbal incoherence and popular electoral defeat to become President of the United States). We’ve gotten used to blaming parents for the waywardness of their children, when we don’t blame the children themselves. In these stories the family is the place-keeper for society because it is the institution that remains closest to us.

Now comes Dalton Conley’s effort to explain why siblings often end up on opposite sides of the class divide despite being raised in the same family. The Pecking Order is a fun read with a serious intent–both a study of the family and a symptom of our fascination with it. Conley, a New York University sociologist in his 30s, satisfies our thirst for knowing the private lives of the rich and famous while also shedding light on the family lives of anonymous Americans. Perhaps more to the point, his book feeds our need for reassurance by reciting the familiar narrative of social mobility in America: In nearly all of Conley’s anecdotes, some unlikely sibling defies the social determinism of birth. Thus Bill Clinton’s rise to fame and power is an inadvertent re-enactment of that paradigmatic American success story, Abe Lincoln’s mythic overcoming of seemingly insuperable odds. Bill’s early life was marked by an absent biological father and a “bitterly jealous” stepfather who was abusive to his mother. How did Bill escape the murky fortunes of his brother, Roger, who seemed to succumb to the effects of their shared grim home life? Conley suggests that given the family’s severely restricted resources it was a zero-sum game; Bill’s gain was Roger’s loss.

The majority of Conley’s examples, however, are drawn from the lives of ordinary Americans, and he relates their stories with a novelist’s flair. (To his credit, he relegated the inevitable essay on method to a lengthy appendix, thus preserving the book’s narrative flow.) In these accounts he seeks to challenge the two most popular explanations for success: “It’s all in the genes,” and the equally determinist attribution of failure to social conditions, particularly social class. Inequality, Conley argues, cuts broadly across the class and occupational structure and begins at home; the way parents relate to their children greatly influences their chance of achieving success and social prestige outside the home. According to Conley, families set up a “pecking order” in which parents often lavish attention on one child while ignoring or giving short shrift to the others. Although he does not ignore the role the larger social structure plays in holding many kids back both from academic achievement and from social mobility, Conley places most of his emphasis on such factors as birth order–whether the older sibling has a chance to experience her or his early years as an only child, thus receiving, for a time, all of the parents’ attention; whether the middle child gets neglected; or whether the youngest are born far enough down the line so that their siblings have left the house and they are the beneficiaries of an unusual outpouring of parental love and support.

Conley concedes that about half of social and economic inequality in America (greater than in any other developed society) is due to “external” factors beyond the control of the family. But only toward the end of his book does he give serious attention to structural obstacles to mobility such as class and its consequences. Whatever influence birth order and parental attitudes may have, kids born in working-class families seldom become professionals and managers, let alone business owners. Poor and working-class children tend to be raised in homes with few books or other forms of cultural capital, a disadvantage the underfunded schools they attend can hardly begin to remedy. Many of these children hardly see their parents, who are either working two jobs or looking for work, and they suffer from higher rates of parental abuse (especially by fathers or stepfathers) than their middle-class peers. As if that weren’t enough, they are also more likely to be raised by one parent–not to mention those who have been raised in foster homes. By stressing the pecking order over larger socio-economic forces, Conley takes a fairly ahistorical slice of the larger reality. At the turn of the twenty-first century, when even professionals and managers face job insecurity and education only gets you through the door but not necessarily to a job, the statistic that the pecking order accounts for half of social inequality reflects a situation that is rapidly passing into history.

The most serious problem with The Pecking Order is not the finding that families matter in determining the fate of their offspring. For a limited group of families Conley makes his case. The main problem is his conceptual framework for understanding success and failure, class, social mobility and, indeed, education. Conley’s measure of “success” is whether the child, from whatever socioeconomic background, becomes a member of the professional/managerial class. People who end up becoming factory workers, truck drivers or ordinary clerical workers are, tacitly, viewed as failures. And Conley offers almost no concept of class other than that which is common among social scientists. Class, for him, is determined by occupation and income. Missing from this analysis is economic power–over ownership of productive property or, conversely, the power acquired by “low” status groups who form unions or other groups to acquire power in order to advance their interests.

Conley seems to have little awareness of or interest in what for many working people is an enviable form of success: holding a high-seniority union factory job or becoming a union driver, a skilled construction worker or a machinist. Achievement in school has little to do with this kind of success. For example, to qualify for an apprenticeship in the electrical or plumbers union, all you need is a high school diploma. Truck drivers are among the highest paid of nonprofessionals; their income exceeds that of many “professionals.” Yet they require only a short course and a road test to qualify for the job.

Most of us first acquire our understanding of class from our family, and Conley–the son of artists who raised him and his younger sister in a poor, largely black urban neighborhood–is no exception. In an engaging confession titled “Lies My Mother Told Me,” he writes of his “intense sibling rivalry,” in which he was the privileged child. I suspect that he has taken his own autobiography as a model for success, and his own position in the family as a social indicator. Of course, this may apply to families with middle-class cultural advantages or aspirations, but that is not Conley’s claim. His intention is to describe an important aspect of social inequality.

This sort of disclosure has become almost obligatory, ever since Pierre Bourdieu insisted that social scientists be self- reflexive. Allow me, then, to offer my own. I am the only child of two parents, both of whom engaged in steady clerical and technical work throughout my childhood. Still, I did well enough in school to gain entrance to Brooklyn College, then a tuition-free public institution, before dropping out to work as a laborer in steel-fabricating and machine-parts plants for the next ten years. As a union activist and factory worker, I met many people who had absolutely no desire for “social mobility” and a number whose dream was to own a bar or a grocery store, not, say, to run a corporation. Some rose to shop-floor or local union leadership and others were active in the church, social clubs or veterans organizations. Mostly they were intelligent, critical and often creative people on the job and off the shop floor, and hardly any experienced their lives as failures. When I became a union organizer in the clothing and oil industries, I found that few workers expressed a sense of defeat or disappointment that, as Brando puts it in the film On the Waterfront, they “coulda been a contender.” In many instances they felt their (male) children would do well to get a job in the mill.

The Pecking Order also takes a rather uncritical and ahistorical view of the fate of the professions in America. Some professions have always been unstable, especially those in the theater, music and entertainment industry. Aside from a handful of stars, most musicians, writers and actors struggle to scrape together a living as freelancers; the few who are lucky enough to obtain steady work usually earn decent but unremarkable pay. What is fairly new is that tens of thousands of highly educated computer technologists, professors and scientists have been forced to take part-time, contingent and temporary employment to get by. And since 2000 the rash of layoffs because of outsourcing and, most crucially, job-destroying technological change has left many highly qualified managers and professionals unemployed, especially older workers. Against this backdrop of vanishing social mobility in America, it’s hard to see what difference the pecking order actually makes. Equally significant, one of the crucial advantages of professional status, the ability to control one’s time and make independent decisions, has been eroded by the incorporation of the professions into salaried labor.

Even the so-called salaried professions have ceased to be guarantees of social mobility. Once an independent entrepreneur, the salaried physician or engineer–now characteristic of the medical, engineering and legal professions–has been reduced to a well-paid worker with a huge education debt. Recent trends in corporate life, including healthcare institutions, have stripped these professionals of their most prized possession, autonomy. Increasingly subject to strict supervision, doctors have little discretion in prescribing treatment regimes, which has prompted some to organize into trade unions. Engineers, for their part, complain of speedup, the cause of a celebrated strike of 16,000 Boeing engineers in 2000. But since the United States no longer holds a near monopoly in technical knowledge, many of these jobs are migrating, along with clothing and textile jobs, to China and India, where graduate engineers and computer specialists earn a fifth of their American counterparts. Computerization and other job-destroying technologies signal the death of middle management as well.

To study the relationship between family structures and the emerging labor-market structures requires more than what conventional sociological categories are able to capture. What Conley has given us is a snapshot of the opportunities that were available to some working people during a unique period of American history: the compressed epoch of the industrializing era that began in the middle of the nineteenth century and ended in the mid-1970s, when it was possible for about a quarter of the population to beat the odds and rise above class and occupational conditions of birth. The reason for their “success” was that the economy needed scarce qualified labor and established the educational and training institutions to supply it, since schools were joined at the hip to the economy. But the economy periodically tends to overproduce commodities, and schools were no exception. By the 1970s economic growth slowed to a crawl and, with some exceptions, notably computer science and technology, there appeared to be a glut of qualified, highly educated labor. As early as the 1980s the media and economists were warning of “the downsizing of America” in the wake of globalization, technological displacement and slow growth. Downsizing, which began with factory and clerical labor, soon spread to salaried professionals with advanced degrees. Since the 1970s the world of work has been turned upside down. Even Dalton Conley’s generation, let alone younger and older people, can no longer expect that educational achievement and other privileges of those situated favorably within the pecking order will translate into social mobility. For the brutal truth is that the blue-collar blues have reached the ambitious and the striving. And there is no end in sight.