There is a great deal of discussion right now about how our children may not be better off than we are. The drumbeat is that throughout the 20th century the next generation has always been richer than the previous one. Today, however, we know that an increasing number of college-age students graduate and move back in with their parents. We also know that an increasing number of college graduates are unemployed or under-employed. So when I hear reports about the young not being better off than their parents, I understand the concern.
But then I recently started thinking of when I was a kid and the sorts of things my parents told me. I was the youngest of three and in an Irish Catholic family dialogue seemed to be a mainstay in our house. Talk. Talk. Talk. Constant conversation. What are you going to do today? What did you do today? How was school? What are you reading? How are the Dodgers doing? I recall a barrage of questions that provoked discussion.
I never once remember my parents discussing money in terms of “better.” As a little kid my father often told me that he wanted me to do better than he had done, that it was all about doing better. But “better” never meant making lots of money. I grew up in a solidly middle-class house, and my parents, especially my dad, grew up in the working class. In grade school I worked every summer. In high school I cut lawns and did yard work all over the neighborhood. Work and money were important, but they weren’t much of a topic. My parents never told me that I should study something because I’d make a lot of dough, and I suspect if I had been a hard-working but lowly-paid poet, they would have been content. My mother, the ambitious one in the duo, probably would have wanted me to be the “best” poet—but “best” never got defined as the “richest” or the “wealthiest.” And my father, the reflective one, didn’t really care what I did as long as I worked as hard as possible and rose higher than he had.
My father worked his way through college and my mother attended a few years of college. When I finished, and then got my Master’s and then Ph.D., they were very pleased. “Better” in part meant better educated. Rick Santorum made the point on the campaign trail that Obama’s call for everyone to go to college was “snobbish.” My parents wouldn’t have understood what he was saying, just as they wouldn’t have understood someone saying that more money meant that one generation was better off than the next.
I don’t mean to put them on a pedestal since I suspect a lot of my friends heard the same sorts of things. I guess I’m wondering how it is that we have gotten to a point where “better” means more money? We’ve lost something along the way by that new definition, I’m afraid.