Hey, Ph.D.s, are you better off than your parent(s)?

A conversation in the comments with The Frog Princess on the post below brought up the issue of upward mobility and the Ph.D. (or rather, the potentially false lure of upward mobility and the Ph.D., at least in the humanities). It became clear after a couple of comments that the upward mobility narrative had never even been present for me but had loomed large (and still does, perhaps) for Frog Princess. But I also think it would be safe to say that Frog Princess and I would define “better off” differently. (Frog Princess, disagree in the comments if that’s not a fair assessment.)

So I just thought, out of idle curiosity, I’d ask if you thought you were better off than your parent(s) at the present moment (recognizing that quality of life is a mutable thing). I put the -s in parentheses not only because some people come from single-parent households, but also because some people might choose to define themselves against one parent and not the other.  And though I have “Ph.D.s” in the post title, I’m not cutting graduate students out of the conversation — I really was just aiming for good Google search terms.  One of the things Frog Princess brought up — and with which I agree to some extent — is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the economic status of Ph.D.s (whether salary of tenure-track professors or the existence of such a large body of adjuncts), and so I thought maybe this blog post might come up if someone Googled “Ph.D.s and upward mobility” or some such.  [ETA:  Oh, and hey, Nicole and Maggie also asked this same question (though not limited to Ph.D.s) a month ago — which somehow I missed or else it slipped my mind — and they got 42 comments (!), so go check it out!]

Anyway, feel free to answer the question and define “better off” in whatever way you see fit. I’m not seeking a one-size-fits all answer here, nor am I trying to put to rest, once and for all, whether or not a Ph.D. provides upward mobility for some or all people. I’m not seeking to do a real study here — there’s nothing scientific here; the plural of anecdote is not data. I just want a conversation. And you don’t have to give you salary to answer the question, either. Tenured Radical once had a post that asked purely about salary, and I think that was enormously useful (and also probably accessible on Google), but my question could be answered qualitatively as well quantitatively.

One thing that might be helpful for context, though, is to state where you are in terms of degree and/or employment status. Are you an early-stage Ph.D. student? ABD? An adjunct, lecturer, or VAP? A tenure-track faculty or tenured? A Ph.D. with an alternative career inside or outside higher ed? An administrator? You might want to define your institution, too. Oh, and MAs in higher ed and MFAs and other terminal degrees should chime in, too, but you might have to redefine the question a little bit.

And like I said, define “better off” any way you want. Also, there’s no judgment here, just idle, conversational curiosity.

I’ll start. Your answer does not need to be as long as mine, of course.

I’m a tenured associate professor with a Ph.D. employed by a regional public university, and I would say that at the present moment I’m better off than my parents ever were, and I’m especially better off than my mother, both financially and in terms of the less tangible aspects of quality of life. My parents were, for the most part, a single-income household. (My mom worked in retail at a hourly rate for some years when I was in junior high and high school, starting during a time of unemployment for my father. But that’s the only paid worked she had.) When I got my first raise in my first job out of college (this was before the Ph.D.), my mom told me that I was making more than my father ever made. (Though, adjusted for inflation, I was not.) That means even as a part-time lecturer my first year after the Ph.D., I was also making more than my dad did.  And believe it or not, my dad had a white collar job.  It was just the most “petit” of the “petit bourgeois” jobs around, apparently. And now, I make roughly 3 1/2 times (in raw terms, not adjusting for inflation) what his highest salary was, judging from what Mom told me. Anyway, when I was about 12, my paternal grandmother died — my grandfather had pre-deceased her — and Dad and his only sibling each inherited some decent assets, mostly in the form of older blue chip investments — enough that Dad took ‘early retirement.’ (Really, he just stopped looking for work, having lost his previous job.) I have less of a handle on how much that actually paid out annually, but I have a hunch I’m still better off income-wise now than my parents were then, and that *is* adjusting for inflation.

Now add the fact that I live with Bullock, who makes about the same salary as I do, and even adjusted for inflation, our household income is much higher than what my parents’ was. Plus, they had four kids and we have none, so our expenses are lower.

And that brings me to what I think the biggest, qualitative difference is between my life and my parents’, but especially my mother’s. All I have to do is look at my life with a feminist lens and I’m a heckuva lot better off than my mom — and she wanted it that way, I should say. I’m financially independent (and was so even at the poverty levels of graduate school) and I’ve chosen a career path and a family life that works for me (including the choice not to have kids) — mom didn’t have nearly as much control over those aspects of her own life. (Dr. Crazy has a comment here about her own mom that echoes a little bit of what my mom did for me, too, so that my life didn’t replicate hers.) I have a committed relationship with a man who is himself a feminist and a real life *partner*, rather than a patriarch like my father, and I had the freedom to be picky enough to wait and wait and wait until I found such a rare creature. (I joked to Bullock the other day that I was pretty damn sure he was the only man in America who had taken feminism to heart and not simply used it to get into women’s pants.) And I’m still financially independent. Even now, Bullock and I keep our finances mostly separate. We share expenses, but not bank accounts. If we were to split up, we’d have to figure out who’d take what big-ticket items we purchased jointly — and/or who’d pay whom for their share — but otherwise it would be much simpler on the financial level than it might for others. (The biggest problem would be who gets Pippi. But we’re not planning on splitting up, so I’m not going to think about that now.)  And it would *certainly* be simpler than it would’ve been for my mother to leave my dad. My dad was (still is) kind of an asshole, and when I was younger I’d try to urge Mom to leave him, but she always told me she couldn’t afford to. I am *definitely* better off on that score, all around.

And I think my life is qualitatively better than my dad’s, too.  As you can probably judge from the bit about the inheritance, above, Dad’s parents had money, and so I think Dad was always unhappy about not having money and the things it buys (mostly for him — he’s extraordinarily cheap where everyone else is concerned). And his dad (Papa), I think, reinforced my dad’s feeling of failure — in part because Papa didn’t bequeath the family business to Dad and because I get the impression that Papa lorded over Dad all his life.  I, on the other hand, was much more influenced by my mother, who had a bit of a bohemian streak, treating money as a necessary evil up to a point and not that important after that point, except insofar as it allows you to see the world and continue life-long learning. And so, because of that influence and that attitude, I’m not motivated by money, per se.

I also like my job and my profession more than my dad ever did. Yeah, sure, morale is pretty freakin’ low all over public higher ed right now, and the way the general public sees us *sucks*. Though my dad never had to put up with such public vitriol in his piddly little job, there are things about my job that make up for that. But if and when the crap outweighs what I don’t like, I believe I’ll have the wherewithal to reinvent myself (I’ll also have a good buffer of savings to do so).

I realize how lucky I am to have won the job market crap shoot, not to mention all the other privilege crap shoots before that — being middle class, white, and born after my mother read Betty Friedan. And I’m lucky to be better off than my parents since these days that seems to be a rarer thing. But I’m a medievalist, so I know a little about a thing called Fortune, and Fortune is a very fickle mistress. Things may change, and, as always Your Mileage May Vary.

So, what about you? Better off or not? And how would you define “better off”?


39 thoughts on “Hey, Ph.D.s, are you better off than your parent(s)?

  1. Ok, I too am tenured at a regional public. I’m single, which means I don’t share expenses with anybody.

    As I’m sure you’d expect, my answer to the question is that I’m definitely better off. (Both of my parents’ situations improved with their second marriages, but even still, I’d say that I’m better off than them in terms of education, money, independence, and quality of life based both on the kind of job I have and the fact that I do a job I really do love.)

    Now, here’s the thing: I didn’t have to do much to be better off than my parents. So I don’t report this to perpetuate a myth of upward mobility through academia. Honestly, I was better off then either of my parents right out of the gate because they only had one child instead of having 10 (my mom’s nuclear family) and 7 (my dad’s) respectively. Being an only child vs. being one of 10 or one of 7 makes a HUGE difference in opportunity. And the fact that I have no kids at nearly 37 years old puts me in a better position than my mom at 37 (who had a 17 year-old thinking about college) or my dad at 42 (who by that point had two kids under the age of 2). So those factors have nothing to do with my chosen profession – they have to do with the fact that kids, however awesome they are (and I do think they are) are a drain on resources (money, time, emotional stores, etc.). So all other things being equal (getting a college degree, not having kids, etc.), I could have ended up in another profession and I’d still report that I’m better off than they are.

    What I do think about this particular profession, though, is that it has given me certain kinds of intellectual and professional freedom that other professional paths might not have done. And, because I got lucky, I do have a measure of security that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Now, there are trade-offs to that – like not having geographic or job mobility, the general crap-shoot that is the market, the increasing demands on faculty to do more with less for the same or less pay. That said, I having ended up in the position that I’m in (and like you, I want to note that I acknowledge the privilege of that position), I do think that my job makes my life better – better than my parents’, surely, but also better than the lives of a lot of my non-academic friends. And I don’t think that saying that perpetuates a dangerous myth or constitutes disseminating misinformation about the profession. Honestly, there are reasons to pursue this professional path. It’s just important to counter those with the very real odds that it might not all go according to plan, and that if one starts out from a position of greater privilege that one might actually be disappointed in the reality if things *do* go according to plan.

  2. Wow, interesting. I’m both and neither, I guess, and like you, I was greatly helped by a mother who made sure I had a heck of a lot of opportunities she didn’t. My folks were pretty solidly middle class (I’d do the French thing, but I can’t spell); my Dad worked in a family business, eventually running it through some pretty rough times. I don’t make what my dad made in 1990 (without making any dollar adjustments). But I’m not supporting a family, either. My Mom worked after both kids were out of college, and that made a big difference when times were tough for the family business.
    The biggest difference is that my Dad and Mom planned for, paid for, and encouraged both their kids to go to college. In contrast, my Mom went to work after graduating high school to help support her family (she was raised by a single mother), and never had opportunities to go on to school or whatever. (Or didn’t believe she had them.) My Dad went to community college, got drafted, and finished up on the GI bill, becoming the first member of his family to finish college. My college education means I have opportunities that were unimaginable to women of my social class a generation or two earlier.
    As a single person, I can afford a house, but I couldn’t afford to live where my parents did, at least not at this point. (Maybe when I retire.)

  3. So, FWIW – I was going to answer here, and ended up writing a tome (or a screed, or suchlike), so took it over to my blog. Since it was either be obnoxious by clogging your comments, or be obnoxious by flogging my own blog, I chose the latter – my comment is here.

  4. The kids thing is interesting – I don’t have kids, and I think I’m still less well-off than my parents, who did. But it’s obviously an important factor.

  5. Huh. Interesting (but probably totally coincidental) that the folks in this conversation thus far are women without children.

    New Kid, you totally could’ve clogged the comments. 😉 Oh, and btw, I fixed your link. (I *heart* WordPress!)

  6. Thanks, Dr. V! (Sorry, it’s been ages since I’ve attempted any HTML!)

  7. My father retired as a tenured professor at a Big Ten engineering department. I’m a tenured associate prof at a Canadian regional comprehensive. We’re both essentially sole providers (my partner is sadly underemployed but unless he’s moves four or more hours away, we’ll have to wait for a miracle to occur on the job front).

    We’re slightly below my parents’ level of economic well-being at a comparable stage. Both my dad and I had consulting income streams to boost the family bottom line, but ours is still more modest (a historian can’t bring as much in as an engineer!).

    We have one car, not two. We can’t afford a family vacation w/o my dad’s help (thankfully, he enjoys seeing his grandkids so that makes for a good annual trip). I clip coupons and we both watch our money much more closely than my mother did once my dad was tenured. However, her labour, paid and unpaid, made it possible for our family to thrive (just as we’d have to invest a lot in finding care for autistic youngest if my partner was employed far away from home) and I know that my partner’s availability around part-time work does the same for us, today.

    In some ways, our family looks a lot like a mirror of my parents’ but one that’s a bit more pinched than single-income professionals were in their generation. We don’t fuss because having autistic youngest redefined our own lives and opportunities: we have to structure our lives around accommodating her needs and expanding her horizons while also doing our best to get out of the way of intensely-driven eldest. We still have each other, lots of books, computers (which were barely a dream for home use in the 60s and 70s) so we’re rich in those ways.

  8. J – Funny you mention computers in that last remark there. As I was discussing this with Bullock, he said, half facetiously, that some people might say, “Well, I have an affordable smart phone and my parents couldn’t even dream of that, so that makes me better off.” We do have cheaper, easier access to a lot more high tech stuff. Of course, one could argue that such changes have meant that professionals do a lot more of the labor that was once farmed out to secretaries and typing pools. Whether that’s “better off” or “worse off” (for either party) is too big of a question for me to answer.

  9. Yes and no.

    At my age, My mom was probably in similar circumstances, but had a far better retirement to look forward to, and owned most of a house that, because of the housing boom and location, was worth about ten times what she had paid for it. If she weren’t the kind of person who blows money on rescuing feral cats, etc, she’d be much better off. And honestly, I have no idea what her finances are. If she hasn’t taken out an equity loan on the house, then she’s got capital, but she lives from check to check and wears clothes she gets from neighbors before they go to Sally. My dad is kind of the same now — owns a condo outright, but the fees are ginormous, and HI is expensive. But at my age, he was *way* better off. But that marriage broke up, and he ended up really taking a hit (my stepmother kind of emptied the coffers bailing out her stoner kid, so there wasn’t a ton left to split).

    So yeah. But if I look at my uncles? or my grandparents? No way am I better off, and none of my grandparents went to college, and lived through the depression. I’m at about the stage where my uncles were at my age, except that they had this standard of living with kids. If I had to pay for kids on one income? Nope.

    So, PhD (but finished late/started career late), associate faculty, just bought a house, and can pay all my bills, but have to make lots of choices — research trips mean very little family time or money in savings, and wouldn’t happen at all if I didn’t have generous friends who let me crash with them. Cash flow wise, better off than my mom was, but no kids. Retirement-wise, will be in worse state.

    Oh. Wait. Here’s the simple answer: when my mother was my age, she made the equivalent of $60-70k+, and paid a mortgage of about $575 a month. I make under $54k and pay $750. But I think her retirement must be something around $30k, so… probably I’m better off than my retired mom. Doubt I’ll end up with that much when I retire, though. Unless I marry money or win the lottery.

  10. I am in no way, nor will I ever be, as well off as my parents financially. I am an assistant prof at a flagship state U and my partner makes about half of what I do doing something he loves very much but that has about reached its ceiling income-wise. I would love to have kids, but am afraid to attempt it before tenure in case that doesn’t happen. The funny thing is that my parents think me being a professor is *awesome* and assume that it must come with something nearing a professional level of income and status. I believe they literally think I am making it up when I tell them about the reality of the situation in my field, since I have been prone to self-deprecation since I was a child.

    I think what Crazy says here:

    “It’s just important to counter those with the very real odds that it might not all go according to plan, and that if one starts out from a position of greater privilege that one might actually be disappointed in the reality if things *do* go according to plan.”

    Is absolutely true in my case. I’m not disappointed, really, since I knew what I was getting into theoretically, and I do, assuming the whole tenure thing works out, have a pretty sweet job that I got despite overwhelming odds. Still, I now know that I have all kinds assumptions and habits about money and lifestyle that my adult life has really challenged, and every once in a while I do wish I could build a time machine and go back and do some other things I was interested in. Grad school didn’t both me so much, until the very end, since at that point I was into embracing the “the life of the mind is a calling/virtuous vow of poverty” line and I was surrounded by like-minded and awesome people who all had the same situation.

  11. This is a GREAT topic.

    I’m not sure whether I and my household are better off than my parents were at this stage/age. I’m 36 and an advanced assistant professor (going up for tenure this coming year) partnered with a 42-year-old associate professor at a different institution in a different city. Our current combined income is probably about the same, or not too much less than, my parents’ household income right before they retired, but because we’re in a long-distance relationship we have to maintain two households; we also have staggering amounts of debt. On the other hand, we don’t have kids and both our house and apartment are in affordable cities.

    So I guess I would say that I’m in about the same economic class as my parents were at this stage, though our paths to this point have been very different: my parents did significantly better than their own parents (none of whom went to college), accumulated no educational debt that I know of (state schools plus the GI Bill), got married in their 20s, and, though they had kids late for their generation, they were homeowners by 26 (mom) and 34 (dad), parents of one kid by 28/36 and of two by 35/42.

    However, it’s taken me five years on the tenure track (six post-PhD) to reach the stage where I feel that I’m not way behind where my parents were. My car is almost paid off. When I had to buy a new computer last year, it wasn’t a catastrophe. I was able to buy a house with my partner (albeit with some financial assistance from our parents and in an inexpensive city). If my partner and I manage to get jobs in the same place, I think we will eventually do better financially than my parents. It’s definitely the case, though, that we have fancier connections, more cultural capital, and a wider experience of the world than any of our parents did. So if in a strictly economic sense we’re only holding steady, in lots of intangible ways most people, including our parents, would still regard us as “better off.”

  12. It’s hard to say.
    I’m a tenure-track assistant professor. My salary is modest, but my partner’s is comparable, we have no kids, and we live in an area with relatively low cost of living, so we own a house (well, ok, the mortgage company does) and live pretty comfortably. (We don’t particularly have expensive tastes.) When my mother was my age, she was a stay-at-home mom and wife with 3 kids, one of them a toddler. They were always tight-lipped about financial issues (“You’re a kid. It’s not your job to worry about that.”), so I don’t have a sense of my father’s salary. But he was in sales, so he worked partly on commission, so his income was variable; he also changed jobs relatively frequently, and my parents moved probably a dozen times in their married lives. Assuming I get tenure, I should have a much more stable life than theirs, even with an extended period of contingent academic work under my belt. I went to a fancy liberal arts college, but I had a massive financial aid package, and both I and they took out loans to finance it. My older siblings both went to public universities. I feel like I observed my parents gaining financial stability and solidifying their place in the middle class just in my lifetime. I don’t know to what extent I’ve “improved” on their position. What I do know is that I have pretty much the life I wanted when I started my Ph.D. program. It took me a while to get it, and I’m well aware that I was extremely lucky.

  13. Flavia – When you wrote that It’s definitely the case, though, that we have fancier connections, more cultural capital, and a wider experience of the world than any of our parents did. So if in a strictly economic sense we’re only holding steady, in lots of intangible ways most people, including our parents, would still regard us as “better off.”, I immediately thought, “Well, I think *my* mom would agree with you, too.” Something I wanted to get into my original post, but it was getting a little long (at least as a model for commenters) is that I know my mom wanted that *cultural capital* for me more than anything else (well, that plus to determine my life’s path). To her, greater cultural capital was the sine qua non of upward mobility. And, of course, class *is* more complicated that the “strictly economic sense” — though in the US we tend to forget that more readily, which is both a bane and a blessing to the American cultural story in general.

    Clio — LOL at the “You’re a kid. It’s not your job to worry about that.” I think if it weren’t for the fact that I was a late in life child and my mom started breaking more and more of her own social rules as she aged (including that one — don’t talk about money), when I was the only one still around in the house, I might never have learned what my dad made!

  14. Flavia’s point about cultural capital/fancy connections/experience about the world is an interesting one. I’m not sure my academic (and post-academic) life has had that effect in my own case. My parents came from very modest backgrounds, but my dad was in WWII and so saw the Pacific and other parts of the US. He became a semi-globetrotting executive and worked in Toronto and in London before settling into New England (not where he grew up). And my mom, despite coming from a tiny town in the fens of East Anglia, decided she wanted to do something interesting, and worked as a nurse in Zimbabwe for three years, and later, of course, she moved to the US. When I was growing up, she’d get Christmas cards from friends in England, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Singapore. (Going back to the computer thing – if they’d had internet in the time of their life that I’ve had internet, they’d probably have a lot more global connections!)

    I do have a kind of cultural capital that neither of them had/has, just through getting so much frigging education. But I also lack a kind of corporate cultural capital that my dad had in spades.

    And I think my experience with assumptions about money is very similar to what negativecapability describes.

  15. I didn’t think I thought of a PhD as a means to social mobility, but looking at the paths of myself and my siblings, it’s obvious that our family put a strong emphasis on education. I have a PhD in English, my younger brother an MS in Electrical Engineering and my younger sister an MS in Occupational Therapy.

    I’m 36 and a tenured associate professor at a large state university. I see quite a few similarities between my story and what others have posted. My parents had their children very young (21-24) and as a result my mother didn’t finish college. During my childhood she did skilled blue collar work in a medical field and also worked part-time in retail: so long, long hours for relatively low pay. She has frequently said that I make more than she ever did or could imagine making. She had great job insecurity due to contractions in her sector of retail (bookstores), but has now moved to different kind of support position in a hospital. My father eventually finished college while working in the maintenance department at the school and then worked in management in the same field. Later he earned an MBA. He worked for the same company for his entire life, and was laid off at about the same time he developed serious health problems (the suspicion was that he was at the top of the payscale and the contract could be written for less with a younger manager). He currently can’t work, but long-term disability insurance has helped them get through (my parents were always very cautious and it has served them well). I don’t know how much my dad made, but I imagine what I make is a little less than his highest salary. I learned to be frugal growing up, and of course saw how hard my parents worked to make ends meet and all the sacrifices they made for me and my siblings. I also always assumed I would go to college and have some kind of professional career.

    Financially, I have to think that I am better off than my parents were at my age. I’m partnered to another professional (in an IT field and he is well-paid). We own our home, live in a part of the country with a low cost of living, have both cars paid off, no real debt, etc. Also we have no children, which gives us so much more flexibility, both financially and otherwise. Both of us are very satisfied with our work and find it challenging and rewarding. I don’t know if my dad was satisfied with his work (though he always had good relations with his colleagues and employees). My mom did like selling books, but she was so constrained by the corporate culture that gave her no autonomy.

    I think the debt issue is very important. When I was choosing my undergrad school, I was deciding between a well-known East Coast SLAC with a financial aid package that included loans and a less well-known Midwestern SLAC that offered me a full-tuition package without loans. I am very glad I was smart enough at 17 to choose the latter, because I think it gave me so much more freedom and has a lot to do with where I am now.

  16. OK, NK, your dad is definitely the anti-Dad to my dad (or vice versa)! My dad also served in WWII (but in Europe) but was one of those guys on whom all the new cultural experiences just seemed to reinforce his prejudices and provincialism. But then, like I said, he’s kind of an asshole. (For all those people who’ve never heard me talk about my dad, just imagine an Irish-Catholic, more middle class version of Archie Bunker. Thank god my mom wasn’t an Edith.)

    My mom, on the other hand, was a little more like your mom in spirit, NK, but she married too early to have the interesting experiences she might have had. But she *read* a *lot* — not just fiction, but history — and spent a lot of time in museums, traveled as much as she could (with Dad and us, usually) in the US, and traveled the rest of the world vicariously through it all. And she saved up from the time she was a kid to go to Europe, finally making her first trip in 1978, when she was 48, taking me along. And then, after my grandmother died and we had a little more money, there were other trips. Although she didn’t make any life-long friends since we were just passing through, some of her fondest memories (and the longest entries in her travel journals) were about the people she met and conversed with.

    But she took me along on that first trip and on all but one subsequent trip to Europe, and another to China, and so I got earlier experiences than she ever had. And I’m freer than she was to take long trips overseas every year — freer economically, but also in the sense that I have a partner who holds down the fort without complaint when I take 6-week-long research trips. That’s definitely something she couldn’t have done, even if she could have afforded it.

    And yeah, the degrees are part of that cultural capital, too. My mom never even finished college (neither did my dad), and boy, was she *adamant* that we all finished at least the BA/BS. That mattered so much to her, and it had nothing to do with greater earnings potential.

    (Not that any of this changes/contradicts/argues with anything you said….I’m just ruminating now.)

  17. Dr. V, that’s interesting about your mom marrying early and not getting some experiences because of it – my mom considered herself “on the shelf” for probably 10 years before she met my dad and got married, and it’s very much part of her life narrative that she married VERY late and had kids VERY late (34 & 35, so today, not so late at all!). There was apparently a very nice doctor she came close to marrying, but he was Jewish and his family threatened to sit shiva if he married the shiksa. Anyway, I do think my mom quite consciously decided that if she was going to be on her own, she was going to do interesting things on her own – which reveals a certain attitude to the world, but I think also reflects a sense that she had “failed” at the things women were supposed to do.

  18. (And I’m kinda just ruminating too – I have literally NOTHING I have to do till my job starts in September, so I’m rampaging all over the internets! sorry!)

  19. What I meant to say, before I launched into the too long personal story (sorry) is that I’m seeing here the same kinds of patterns that are more broadly the case for middle-class Gen-X Americans: the necessity of two incomes (rather than the possibility of surviving on one) and children coming later or not at all (which may be more because so many posting are female academics of a certain age/ generation) with so much more uncertainty about how to provide for the future (college, etc.) of any children we do have. Younger (20s or so) PhDs or grad students may have different stories?

  20. My cultural capital seems greater only in the sense that engineering profs are thought to be less cultured than historians. But I embrace my pop culture loves so enthusiastically that I lack even that extra cachet. Ah, well – at least I know enough Latin to dazzle folks.

  21. Getting in on this late, but my answer, like that of so many others here, is “yes… and no.”

    INCOME: adjusted for inflation, I make 80% of what my parents made my senior year in high school. On the other hand, I support only myself on that amount.

    DEBT: I left grad school with a debt close to six figures, and no tangible assets. Eight years later, the debt is much lower, but still over 50K. My parents had a mortgage, and usually some small credit card bills and the assorted medical bill, but nothing else.

    ASSETS: My parents had a house and a car. I have a Ph.D., a rented one-bedroom apartment, and a bicycle (though it’s a pretty nice one).

    SAVINGS/RETIREMENT: Nearly none… so parents and I are even on that score.

    BENEFITS: I have better insurance than my parents had, when they had any at all.

    JOB SECURITY: Me, yes (since tenure). Them, no: mom wasn’t an income-earner, and dad endured two six-month unemployment periods while I was growing up.

    EXTRAS: Here is where things are clearly better for me than for my parents: I buy fancy coffee every day, I have a moderately expensive membership at a yoga studio, and I do a lot of traveling.

    In general, what I’d say is that my debt-to-asset ratio puts me worse off, but as for the rest, it’s a matter of different priorities.

  22. Travellia – No need to apologize for personal stories on *this* blog!

    Notorious – I second you on “it’s a matter of different priorities.” — which is kind of why this is more just a conversation than anything else.

    Anastasia – I appreciate your succinctness! But then again, doesn’t it depend on what part of the working class you come from and how you define “better off”? (I sound a little bit like Clinton there, don’t I — depends on how you define “is” and “sex” and all that.)

  23. Not better off financially, that’s for sure. In a more comfortable place ideologically, yes, but that wasn’t the question.

    INCOME: without adjusting anything, I make about 60% of what my father did when I was in high school (before taxes), and only a little more than my mother made then. About twenty years have passed! My father has no college degree and worked in an office (no union); my mother’s education is complicated but is capped at a bachelor’s degree.

    DEBT: I’m very debt-averse and managed not to incur any in grad school; I was lucky not to need surgery, etc. My partner has a mortgage and thus I do too (see next). We’re able to make our monthly payments, but our small condo is under water. If/when we sell it, it’ll be to move and get out, not for niceties about equity or whatever.

    ASSETS: so, as of three years ago, I share a household with my partner, and he earns quite a bit more than I; the assets I have are from his paycheck. (I sold my car before we got married because we weren’t using both cars, so I can’t even count that.) Sure, they’re my assets now, but three years is recent enough against the number of years I’ve been an independent adult that I don’t feel they are. 🙂

    SAVINGS/RETIREMENT: my father socked away quite a bit because his employer matched quite a bit. My mother turned off her retirement in order to pay for my undergrad degree + housing, since my father wouldn’t pay. (She’s now provided for in another way.)

    BENEFITS: mine are still fairly good, despite recent erosion; my father’s were better; my mother’s were worse.

    JOB SECURITY: I have an office job–no tenure–but am in a fairly stable place (bizarrely because I’m paid by soft money). Also, my job does require my Ph.D., so I think it’s reasonable that I’m here in this comment! I’m more than five years out, and members of my cohort have gone up for tenure, published their first book, etc. My father’s job security went rapidly down the drain in the late 1980s as his industry shifted towards a contract basis. My mother’s job security while I was in high school was comparable to mine.

    EXTRAS: I don’t drink coffee, fancy or otherwise, and we haven’t seen a film in a long time. Etc. We now have a negative “extra” my parents did not, in that our small child goes to not-cheap daycare, whereas my mother chose to be at home for much of my childhood.

    I’m deliberately using a different e-mail address for this comment so that the gravatar thing is thwarted.

  24. This is a great post, and a great discussion going. Here are my thoughts and input (and from a male).

    My father–the primary income-earner in my family–graduated with a BA and became a full-time pastor soon after that, and stayed in that career for 16 years. He later enrolled in graduate school (while working full time) and received his MA in a related field. His raises over the years basically covered inflation, and at the height of that career he made only about 30% more than I do now as a graduate student. My mother was a cosmetologist until I was 5, but stopped working full-time when my younger sister was born (the last of three children–I’m the middle child). Over the years she worked various part-time jobs, which helped to bring in some income.

    After 16 years as a pastor, my father shifted careers and began working for NY state as a prison clergy, and almost doubled his salary. At the same time, my parents bought their first house–the churches my father had worked at had always provided housing–and they have found themselves living comfortably over the last several years, especially as my father’s union has fought for raises beyond just cost-of-living every year. Of course, my brother was in college at the time of my father’s career shift, and I followed only a few years later, as did my sister recently; so my parents’ expenses have also decreased as their children have left the house.

    I am currently a third-year PhD candidate at a public research university (University of Connecticut), and think that I’m doing well, financially and otherwise. I’m satisfied with my job choice and with the amount I make; yet I also know that I’m fortunate enough to have better funding than some of my fellow graduate students in other programs. I’m married, and my partner (who graduated with a BA in biology) works full time in a micro-biology lab, and she makes about twice as much per year as I do. We share our incomes and expenses, have no children, have some educational debt, and live in a high-cost part of New England (whereas my parents mostly lived in rural NY)–so our expenses are lower than my parents’ in some ways, but higher in other ways.

    My family has always valued education and learning, and my father’s own pursuit of a graduate degree speaks to that. He has always hoped to pursue more, but several factors (finances having been a major issue, then age and practicality) have held him back from pursuing a PhD. Of course, my parents also always encouraged me to find a career that would be satisfying, not just financially but also personally. I’ve pursued that path, knowing that I’ll still be in debt when I’m on the other side of a PhD.–but also knowing that I’m (hopefully) far from the height of my career: I look forward to completing my PhD and continuing to learn (thus being better off in ability to pursue education); and–job-market-willing–I’ll start off making more than double what I do now when I find a tenure-track job. I also know that my partner’s own salary will continue to grow as she progresses in her own career.

    So I think that I am in some ways better off than my parents, but mainly due to some opportunities and pursuits and personal choices rather than any upward mobility corollary to a PhD track. What really strikes me about all of this, however, is that I have been very fortunate in my opportunities. I do think that I will be more financially stable in the long run than they were throughout my childhood–though with less of a margin compared to where they are now, as they approach their 50s. Yet, even more, my opportunities and pursuits of them have led to a certain amount of life satisfaction that is very worthwhile.

  25. Brandon – As I went to bed last night, I said to Bullock, “Where are the guys? I’d like some guys to comment on the post.” I was ready to do my Rita Morena impression (“Heeeeeyyyyy youuuuu gu-uyyyyyyysssss!”) so thanks!

    Sharon – Actually, I did say you could define “better off” any way you saw fit. And that’s why I looked at the quality of my mom’s life vs. mine in terms of the greater opportunities and life choices feminism has granted me. So feel free to talk about how you’re better off ideologically.

  26. Heh, I’m better off ideologically because I’ve learned when to fight (one parent fought too often, the other not often enough). That doesn’t have much to do with quality of life on a day to day basis, however, IMO.

  27. We had some interesting comments from our readers when we considered this question: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/are-you-doing-better-than-your-parents/

    Our personal answer was, yes, sort of. We’re not in our careers for the money, but we appreciate the tangible and intangible benefits that our parents worked to provide for us. As an academic, I’ll never make as much money as my dad made all throughout my childhood working in the finance industry. I have more financial stability and flexibility than my mom, though I don’t own a house and she does.

  28. I am not a Ph.D. or a graduate student, but my father is a tenured professor in the sciences.

    When my dad was about my age, I think he was just finishing his Ph.D., and he barely had a bean to his name (although he did manage to save a portion of his stipend each year) and he had just married my mom. His first and only job started out as tenure track at a private university and he made less than I do as a non-profit fundraiser today, adjusted for inflation. But not by much. And I think I have far less earning potential than he did, as he moved into admin and was able to make more money there (though sacrificing his quality of life considerably, in terms of hours on the job and stress level).

    I have no advanced degrees and am deeply torn about whether or not to pursue one. I am 28 and I still don’t know where to go or what kind of career I want for myself, and I am also sick to my stomach about taking on debt for a Masters. But I think that not getting a degree will hold me back eventually, certainly in terms of money and job options. It’s very disheartening and I get really upset about it. My parents always knew what they wanted to do, and in that way things were simpler for them.

  29. Maggie and Nicole — How did I miss and/or forget about that post? It was just a month ago! Sorry, didn’t mean to steal your idea! I’ll update and add a link in the main body.

    Margaret – Nice way to turn the question around, being the offspring of a PhD! As for taking on debt for a Masters, what kind of Masters are you interested in? Some might necessitate less debt than others, and most Masters are two years, at most. Worth thinking about if you think the Masters is necessary for your career plans (of course, you need to investigate *that*, too).

  30. #2 Here– I’m definitely better off than my parents and my partner is way better off than his. I think we’d have had upward mobility even without the PhD though– our friends with similar educational backgrounds are making more money with more savings in the SF bay area… if only we hadn’t wasted all those years in graduate school… (But I do like my job)

  31. I’m a guy! I’m a guy!

    I don’t have much to add to the discussion, however. My story is much like New Kid’s. My father was a successful lawyer; I teach at a small community college. So no, I am not financially better off than he was at my stage of life (interestingly, he was further along in *life* at my stage of life as well, since both of his kids were already in college by the time he was my current age; my kids are in the early years of elementary school). I will never make what he made by the time he was 35. My wife is a successful artist, but that’s kind of an oxymoron, no? Even accounting for her income, we’re significantly poorer than my parents were at any time after my dad finished law school.

    But, of course, I’m better off than he was in many, many ways. Though he died before I even entered grad school, he was certainly envious of my career plans and would have, I think, gladly sacrificed some of that material success to live the life that I now lead. And I would not even entertain the idea of sacrificing my lifestyle and work for his material success. So by that score, I can say that I am better off.

    Like several other commenters, it never occurred to me that the Ph.D. was a means to upward mobility. It was simply the gateway to the life I wanted to lead. Of course, my father had a J.D., so I haven’t significantly surpassed his level of education anyway.

    -Prof. de Breeze

    P.S. I somehow missed the blog move a few weeks ago, but I’m thrilled to have found you again, Dr. V.

  32. My data: I’m 28, African-American, single, no children, ABD, will defend my dissertation in a few months, and am starting a visiting gig at an elite university. I’m the daughter of an immigrant mother and a Vietnam Vet father.

    Without question, I’m doing better than my mother, but it’s virtually impossible for me to be doing worse than her, at least her when I was alive (she worked before I was born). For religious reasons, she was a stay-at-home mom with me and continued to do so even once it became clear that my father had no intention of bringing home a steady income. We lived off his retirement check from the Army. I don’t know exactly how much it was, although I have seen some of his bank statements of late, and his finances look shockingly meager. He’d also racked up significant debt, and tons of things happened because of their financial situation that impacted my childhood: we moved when I was little b/c (I think) our house was foreclosed on; there was a lien on our new house; I’m pretty sure they had to claim bankruptcy; at least one random check from an anonymous benefactor (probably someone from our church) appeared in the mail; there were several christmases and birthdays (I was born quite close to Christmas) without gifts, under the guise of “you need to learn that life isn’t about presents”; and there was at least one christmas that I unwrapped a boxed present that consisted of a letter from my mother telling me that she’d get me rollerskates when she had the money (she did make good on that promise). My mother, who was beautiful and had apparently prided herself on her appearance (so my much older sister and my mother’s younger siblings have informed me), practically wore rags (i.e. ancient sweatpants, tshirts, and undergarments with holes) so that what little money we had for clothes went to making sure I looked put together. She was severely depressed, and sought no treatment for it (probably a combination of money and religious issues), and she eventually succumbed to cancer that she had for my entire teenage life and refused to get treated (definitely a combination of money and religious issues).

    As for my father, for most of graduate school, he and I were probably about par during my graduate school career. Now I’m doing worse than he is, but that needs to be temporary. I know that at points during my graduate career, my rent for a tiny one bedroom apartment was more than his mortgage on the home I grew up in, and where he still lives.

    Despite barely having a high school education, my mother was very smart and believed in education. There’s probably little about my life that she would approve of at the moment, but I think she would be proud that I’m getting a PhD. But I do think she would be disappointed to find out how little that meant financially. My parents never said it (and things were complicated b/c as much as my mother pushed my education, she also believed that, if I got married (which she wasn’t the hugest fan of), that I needed to submit to my husband and probably stay at home with kids) but I know they had big expectations for me, and many of those expectations were that I would have a better financial life than they. This would be especially true of my mother, who was mortified at the financial situation she found herself in but was too depressed and too trapped by her religious beliefs to do anything about it. What skills she did have were also obsolete by the time I was a teenager, so going back to work would have been difficult. But yeah, my mother made it her life’s mission to make sure I had the education I needed to have a much better life than she did. To some degree, she succeeded. It truly is remarkable that someone who was born where she was could have a child get a PhD from the institution I will be getting one from. But the fact that I have credit card debt, and the fact that I could make what I’ll be making this upcoming year without a bachelor’s degree, let alone months away from a PhD, these would be points of real disappointment to her. My father’s putting a brave face on things, and has convinced himself that I’ll get a tenure-track job at the institution where I’m now visiting, but he too will not be satisfied (nor will I) if I don’t get above 50k in a real hurry. And actually 50k is seriously lowballing their and my expectations of peak salary.

  33. My dad lives in a house that has wheels. I do not. 🙂

    But seriously, my dad does physically demanding work that has taken a toll on his body and he is not trained for anything else. He has no education (beyond high school), which makes it virtually impossible for him to find a better job without going back to school. And he’s neither personally nor financially very prepared to do that. He gets by. Barely. He’s done okay in life but I worry about him as he ages.

    My mom (they are divorced) did go back to school and get her BA and she does better than my dad but as far as preparation for retirement, I worry. And as far as her general ability to think through the knotty little problems of life, she cannot reason her way with anything like clarity. This affects her job performance significantly–just for fun, she’s staff at a college–which affects her stress level.

    I think, though, that where I count myself best off is not a financial thing. It’s about my ability to move confidently through a variety of social circles, to think and communicate clearly, and to master new skills. My parents don’t speak well. They don’t present well. Neither has ever considered leaving the small town in which I was raised. And in my dad’s case, aging presents serious issues he isn’t really prepared to face.

    I have options. Lots of them. And the people who raised me don’t.

  34. I think it’s all relative. I have a professional doctorate (J.D.) and a M.A.. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. Does having either of these make me better off than my father who had a high school diploma and my mom who dropped out of college after a year to help raise her sister after her father died?

    My parents worked very hard to provide for my brother and me. At the same time, my husband and I struggled after I graduated law school (he has Bachelors degrees in Physics and Electrical Engineering). I was diagnosed with RA early in my legal career and had to choose a different profession.

    I think people like to ask that question of each generation in the hopes that we are better off than the last, like somehow things have gotten better for the present generation. Are there better opportunities for me as one sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and Gen X? (I was born in 1968) than my parents who where born in 1940 and 1942? Maybe. But, there are bigger challenges that their generation never fathomed.

    I think it’s just important not to compare, but to embrace what we have achieved and thank those who helped paved the way to get there.

  35. Thanks to everyone who has responded (so far) and told their story. (And Anastasia, I didn’t mean to goad you into one!)

    I think Seeking Solace is right that it’s all relative and hard to measure. But I also think that our collective stories (and the ones at NicoleandMaggie’s place) let people know that a) no degree is a guarantee that you’ll be “better off” than your parents, and that b) people in academic come from a plethora of backgrounds and have an equally diverse set of experiences and reasons for being there.

  36. This is a fascinating discussion. Thanks to everyone for making it so!

    Financially, I’m definitely not better off than my parents, and never will be.

    My parents were public high school teachers (retired for 6 or 7 years now) in Southern California. They were the first in their families to attend college. They had relatively low salaries for much of their career–my sister and I always felt comfortable, though I suspect my parents worried a lot about money–because they were government employees under a series of Republican governors. They retired under a Democratic governor, however, and had a nice “golden handshake” as a result. Their final salaries were about twice as much as I’m making now, and since their pensions are based on that amount, they’re pretty comfortable.

    I’m 36 and an assistant professor on the tenure track at a regional state university. When I accepted this job, I took a big pay cut (around $25,000 if I account for adjuncting opportunities outside my day job) because I really, really wanted a tenure-track job. I will not get a raise until tenure–even for cost of living–and even then, it will only be about $5,000. My departmental colleagues who are full professors make *just slightly* more than I was paid as a relatively low-level academic staff member in my previous job.

    My partner doesn’t have a college degree, and he’s in the newspaper industry, which is dying, so he’s lost more than half his income over the past couple years. He’s a specialist in graphic design for printed materials, though he does some (pretty basic) web design, too. He has health issues as well as major dental issues–one dentist recently suggested we spend $40,000 on his mouth–so we have a lot of consumer debt, plus grad school debt. We don’t own a house, and likely won’t for a long time, if ever. People claim the cost of living here (Idaho) is lower than it was where I was living before (California), but except for real estate/rent, I’m not seeing any difference. If anything, it’s more expensive because goods have to be trucked farther to get here.

    My parents bought their house for $28,000 and it’s now worth ~$1.5 million. Plus they have a decent retirement and lots of savings. So they have assets, where we really have none.

    Am I better off than they are in non-financial ways? Probably not. I don’t have family within about 1,000 miles, whereas I grew up with four generations of the family–including members from both my mom’s and dad’s families–living on the same block. So we lack that support. My parents are intellectually curious (they both have master’s degrees) and well-read, and they have traveled far more extensively than I imagine I’ll ever be able to afford to do.

    This sounds depressing. I really do like my job, but with a 5-year-old son and a nearly 50-year-old partner whose employment prospects kind of suck, I’m not sure for how long I can sustain a life in academia. (On the plus side, this is the last month we’ll be paying $800/month in daycare/preschool costs, after five years of doing so–there went $50,000!)

  37. Well, I can add a variant perspective because of not being in the US system. My father was a journalist and then an administrator, and I think it unlikely I will ever match his quitting salary. Certainly, at 35 he owned a house that he’d had built on land he bought in what is now an incredibly expensive area of London but was then basically countryside, and my mother still lives there and has that asset (though if she sold it, the first thing the buyers would do is knock the house down and build three bigger ones in the space). I can just about afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment for just me so that there’s a room for my son to live in when he visits. I contribute something to his upkeep but not as much as I should, so this is not just that I have dependants.

    In the UK there is much less variation in pay-rates between institutions than there seems to be in the US; I am a temporary lecturer in a top-of-the-line institution (for now) and I am getting pretty much what anyone else at my level would get, not least because the post is externally funded. I don’t think I would get much of a payrise if I were somehow shunted onto a permanent contract, but there’s no prospect of that happening; the post collapses when the person on sabbatical comes back off it. I will have to have applied for and got something else by then. I wouldn’t expect that to change my living circumstances much, though I might be able to afford this standard of living more clearly.

    I have neither debts, beyond a few hundred pounds of overdraft I hope I can clear soon, or assets, beyond books and music. My cultural capital (good call there!) is about the same as my father’s at my age; he had a first-class degree from the same institution as I got mine from, was very widely-read and had served in WWII (was in Hiroshima a fortnight after the bomb went off! but lived till his eighties and died of smoking-related complications to a thrombosis) and lived the high life as a young journalist and then worked for several organisations with very international connections. I have only tiny savings (fraction of a year’s salary) and only limited benefits (the national pension and a professional one, both of which ought to leave me about as well off as I now am or a bit better if I can continue with academia till retirement). No job security beyond the term of this appointment.

    I don’t think I ever saw academia as upward mobility, because my father was the picture of a well-heeled white-collar professional. I was choosing to make less money than him by going into academia and knew this. I was however thinking of hiding from the market somewhat, which was completely unrealistic but it is still less important whether what I do earns money for the bosses than it did in all his employments. I wasn’t expecting to be as far behind by now as I am, though. But I’m doing more or less what I want to do and my work and my hobbies are almost indistinguishable. I’m not happy about my life, exactly, but it’s not far off how I’d like it right now; I’m not sure he was ever happy outside work or out in public being the genial patriarch and I don’t think my mother has been happy with that much of her life either. So I think I may be doing better than them in terms of happiness, but not on anything else. That’s not nothing though.

  38. Pingback: Stock Take VI: the work, the job, the life? « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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