Conventional wisdom is that parents, particularly upper-middle-class (UMC) parents like my partner Sally and I, desire and make a strong effort to ensure comparable (or better) economic success for their children. This typically involves to some extent trying to stage-manage their kids’ transition from youth and high school, through application to and acceptance in the best possible college, towards a high-paying career. So the wisdom goes, once our kids have achieved each of these thresholds, parents have accomplished this task and done well by our kids and can hold our heads high with our fellow UMC parents and extended family members.
The Calvinist (or Puritan Ethic) component of this is the whole idea that hard work and the constant push to “better” oneself is worthy and moral. Anything that might involve enjoying life in the now at the expense of the investment in one’s future is viewed as somehow of lesser worthiness and morality. You can enjoy yourself later (so the thinking goes) once you’ve gotten your degree on the far side of a good education and achieved a good professional job. Then by all means relax (to some degree) and enjoy the fruits of that high-paying job.
That’s where the materialism comes in as a metric for the Calvinist hard work and betterment. Conventional wisdom tends to measure worthiness, particularly in the upper-middle-class realm, in terms of the size of the house and its neighborhood, the cars, the appliances, the vacations, etc. And if you are upper-middle-class and your now adult kids are not on a path to measure up based on these metrics, that might be okay too, but there is definitely some explaining to do.
Finally, the Calvinism and materialism tend to be couched in a larger societal effort to supply our country with the (what I will call) “apparatchiks” it needs to continue to “win” the economic competition particularly with China and the other emerging economies in that region. I know I am misusing the word “apparatchik”, but I can’t think of any better word to describe people who take the relatively high-paying professional jobs (like the one I have at the moment), maintaining the “apparatus” of large businesses and “working for the man” as it were.
Given all that, I look at my kids and their circles of friends and I see very few current or soon to be apparatchiks in the bunch. What I see more of, are emerging young adults who either tend to be more entrepreneurial, are more artistically/creatively inclined (with day jobs to support them), or are launching into various other adventures that might involve living and working elsewhere in the world.
Our son Eric for one is highly entrepreneurial, eschews “working for the man”, and aspires to do creative work in the burgeoning game-design industry. At age 24 he already has three years experience running the operational end of a small computer business (now defunct thanks to the Great Recession) that he and three friends partnered in. He got his current job, working for a decade older owner/entrepreneur, leveraging those business skills learned running his own company. Eric, unschooled since eighth grade and a self-described “autodidact” (self-learner), has not and has no intention to go to college.
Our daughter Emma followed in her older brother’s educational footsteps, leaving formal schooling after ninth grade and unschooling since. She is more the classic artist type, with aspirations to be a science-fiction writer. Given that, she has a “day job” working as a server/manager at a small owner-operated restaurant that earns her a living wage and allows her to live on her own and pursue her muse.
Among our kids’ larger circle of peers I see other budding entrepreneurs, artists and adventurers, rather than people on a trajectory for the classic “professional” jobs. Our son’s girlfriend just completed her university degree in linguistics and has gone to Korea for a year to teach English to Koreans, and sees her path forward at this point involving additional travel and living in various parts of the world. She seems more adventurer than future apparatchik. Our daughter’s boyfriend works on the crew for a reality show and has interests in computer programming towards more entrepreneurial work in the game industry as well (a growing part of Southern California’s ubiquitous entertainment industry). Our son’s housemate has his own one-person computer consulting business.
So in casual conversations with extended family, co-workers or other friends or acquaintances who are not familiar with our kids’ situations, once they hear our kids ages their typical first question is, “So are your kids in school?” I feel their expectation is that I will beam and respond that my daughter is in her senior year at some prestigious university and my son graduated recently with his MBA from some other such institution, and holds down a position with some recognized firm.
I always wrestle with how best to set a context to answer such questions. I tend to get a lot of mileage out of starting with something like, “My kids are more entrepreneurial…” and go on from there. Most of the people we interact with are professionals rather than entrepreneurs or artists and some are not wholly comfortable with that answer and maybe change the subject.
So why did their mom and I (both with long work histories as professional apparatchiks) not stage-manage our kids high school, college and career to follow in our professional footsteps so they could find work that would guarantee them a continued presence in our upper-middle-class milieu? Instead our kids have pretty much been charting their own courses from age fourteen, certainly with a lot of love and support from us. If they had been inclined to be apparatchiks, we certainly would have helped them make that happen. But neither seems to have any desire to be a participant in that world.
And to that whole Calvinist/materialist thing, it doesn’t look like my kids, or their circle, buy into all that. I never hear any of them talk about aspirations of wealth, big houses, cars or that sort of thing. The things they appear to value are relationships, community, personal liberty, and creativity. Of course, when it comes to “stuff”, they are into their smart phones and various computers, but more as a means to the ends of maintaining relationships and community, and creating venues for creativity (like computer gaming for example).
Of course, when I was their age I wasn’t concerned with materialism either, I was just trying to stay afloat and make it through the month. It wasn’t until my late 20s after my partner Sally and I married and decided to try and have kids that I was concerned about money and having a house and the rest of the material infrastructure for raising a family. That was 30 years ago.
It is a very different world that they are coming into adulthood in, for better or for worse. Experts in such things predict that most of my kids’ generation will have numerous career changes and should not expect to work at the same job or even in the same field for major portions of their lives. The days of American rampant materialism and “shop ‘til you drop” may be over, and jobs that relied on that hyper-consumerism may not return. Also a lot of the information technology and computer programming type jobs that were available when I was their age are now farmed out to cheaper labor in Asia.
Even after the real estate bust in California, house prices are still high along with apartment rents. In my early 20s in my hometown of Ann Arbor, you could rent a two-bedroom apartment with a friend with minimum wage jobs. Not so in Los Angeles today. Seems you have to have jobs paying two to three times the relatively high California minimum wage to contemplate living on your own (even with a roommate).
Not being on that professional/apparatchik track, it may well be that that conventional goal of the big house, cars, appliances and vacations may just not be a realistic option for my kids and their circles. But again, it really does not seem to be something of value to them anyway.
When I talk to my kids and their peers about their future plans, those dreams are all about doing things, not having things. It’s all about travelling places, writing books, making movies, designing electronic games, and always in the context of their circles of community. I don’t think most of them will fall completely out of the middle class, but it really looks like they will live with much tighter belts than my circle of peers did. I suspect their material “standard of living” may be significantly lower than ours, while perhaps their intangible “quality of living” may move upward.
I guess I’m really starting to ramble now, looking for that big finish to this piece that is not jumping out at me. Suffice it to say for now that my kids’ generation may be headed into economic waters that are not as smooth or lucrative as my generation, but they seem to be ready for that and that may turn out to be a good thing. If we are going to build a sustainable world, America will have to dial down significantly its material lifestyle, and it looks like my kids and their peers are up to that task.