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On Brunch and Business

I’ve been thinking about David Shaftel’s recent critique of brunch. To sum up the thrust of Shaftel’s New York Times article, one need look no further than the title. Basically, he wants us to know that Brunch Is for Jerks. Shaftel seems to have three main points:

  1. Brunch brings out the worst in restaurants and in their patrons.
  2. Brunch popularity indicates a demographic shift – the patrons are largely young, childless professionals who can “fritter away Saturday, Sunday, or both over a boozy brunch.”
  3. This demographic shift has led to a cultural shift where we have, as Shaftel writes, “crowds of unfettered, young(ish) people with no limitations on their pursuit of weekend leisure…friends have become family and brunch the family gathering.”

In conclusion, Shaftel quotes The Guardian, which claims that brunch is “a symptom of the soulless suburban conformity that is relentlessly colonizing our urban environments.” For Shaftel, the brunch trend makes a farce of adulthood: real adults don’t drink away the weekends. Real adults know how to poach their own eggs.

Shaftel’s critique certainly strikes a nerve, as the internet troops gathered to defend brunch. Bustle defended brunch on the following four principles: day drinking, all you can eat, looking slovenly, and “gurl time.” Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan also weighed in, arguing that brunch provides

… surrogate family time. Every one of my friends works ridiculously hard at their ridiculous jobs so that they can afford to live in this ridiculous city, in a ridiculously small apartment too small for hosting much of anything, much less a get together … Believe me, if I had the money to fly to Minneapolis every other weekend to hang out with my parents and their new puppy, I would. So would most New York city transplants in the brunch generation.

I tend to side with Ryan, who ultimately is presenting brunch as a solution to the isolation somewhat intrinsic to modern economic life, rather than the escapism from adulthood that Bustle and Shaftel seem to believe it is.

The world of the modern urbanite is increasingly one at odds with the community. Economics strongly contributes to the structure of our society; this is indicated in something as simple as cost-of-living assessment or the infamous city average rent comparisons. In particular, these cities and societies are shaped largely by corporate capitalism. Milton Friedman describes the interaction of that system in the following words:

There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.

Such a society is hardly one to put human flourishing at the forefront of its concerns. This is not to say that a city as such opposes human flourishing; one only need look at Jane Jacobs’s work,  the theories of urban localism being explored at The American Conservative, or even the critique of capitalism and responses found at The Front Porch Republic. Rather, we should merely note that cities where brunches enjoy wide popularity among young professionals are often the same cities possessed of a deeply ingrained tendency to corporate capitalism.

If Aristotle was correct when he claimed that “every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good,” then under corporate capitalism the good would be economic gain: specifically, the economic gain of the corporation in aggregate. When individuals are made subservient to profit, and they (even unconsciously) lead lives that prioritize that goal above all others, communal ties will fray. One of the problems with profit is that you can always make “more.” Though some will say that subordinating the person to the corporation will be mutually beneficial to both the person and the corporation, I have to join labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein in noting that companies will soon expect greater dedication from their employees, and “over time, and not very much time, the corporation will say ‘this is the new work norm.’” (I have discussed this work norm’s evolution here.) Needless to say, the individual is rarely the focus of the trajectory.

But my work norm will affect my living norm, as we all know when we cancel plans, are late to meet our friends or significant others, or miss family dinner in order to finish a project. Our lives aren’t compartmentalized into boxes labeled “work,” “life,” and “work/life balance.” Being human isn’t segmented, it’s continuous. How we work—more time in the office, longer hours, more flexibility to move or travel at a moment’s notice—affects how we engage our communities, and how we build interpersonal relationships. The fact that employment can draw professionals so far from family and the traditions of the ordinary life does not eradicate our desires for those goods. And though Shaftel has managed to settle himself into the routine of family life, with only 26 percent of millennials married, many young professionals experience keenly the yearning for communal engagement and traditions; brunch is a way of creating community based traditions for the 74 percent of us who are living somewhat non-traditional lives.

So people go to brunch: for the socialization, for the routine, for the idea that something matters in this world beyond a corporate existence. And yet, brunch itself as a young urbanite institution is a band-aid solution to a society that is increasingly inimical to communal institutions as well as to communal ties. We are confronted with a question of what society prioritizes: if profit, then the personal will be contingent on the demands of the corporate. Society will praise those who can cut ties, while all of us will not quite shake the nostalgic reminiscing of times past when family was closer than a $500 plane flight.  Solving a problem like corporate capitalism requires more than brunches, but the modern brunch does indicate that no matter how crazy our jobs are, we all still crave community. Even when our environment encourages autonomy, we will create a space for breaking bread together.

 

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  • Thanks for the examination. Anyone who calls corporate capitalism “a problem”, is OK with me, but is also a practitioner of the polite understatement… 🙂 .

    Interesting how the technology bosses and real estate tycoons usually live in the suburbs with a semblance of traditional family life, but their charges are expected to selflessly deny themselves of same.