Failure to launch

Via Shawn Fremsted at Inclusionist, I ran across this article by Theda Skocpol reviewing two books about the GI bill (free but annoying registration required).   Skocpol notes how unusual the GI bill was in providing assistance to young families:

"But unlike most other U.S. social programs, the G.I. Bill focused its largesse on young adults at just the moment when they were building lives for their families. Usually, we spend money on the elderly, who have earned the nation’s support after a lifetime of work."

The article made me think about Strapped, by Tamara Draut, which I reviewed earlier this year.  Draut talks about how the changes in the economy — the increased cost of education, housing, and child care — particularly pinch young adults right when they’re trying to start families.

The key point, I think, is that it was the 50s and 60s that were the anomaly, not today.  One of the reasons that, in most of history, men have married younger women is that men were strongly discouraged from marrying until they were able to support a family, and there was no expectation that they’d be able to do at a young age.  Older teens and young adults were expected to work, but they typically contributed their labor or earnings to their families of origin.  And when times were bad, as in the Great Depression, people married later.

So we’ve got this perverse combination of an economy that all but requires higher education for success (even though a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job, as Lauren will attest), an educational system that is dependent on student loans, and an expectation that young adults should be able to make it on their own.  There’s no historical precedent.

9 Responses to “Failure to launch”

  1. Jody Says:

    There were brief moments of young-ish independence due to parental farm wealth and relatively inexpensive access to land. So, for certain brief periods, (white) sons could get money from parents to stake western land claims and (white) daughters could get married with the expectation that their new family had a basis for survival. Those periods were fleeting: one in the late 17th century, until land up to the Appalacians was filled; another in the early 19th century after the Louisiana Purchase; probably NOT after the Civil War because Homestead land required fairly high capital investments and was on marginal lands that quickly dashed lower-middle-class people’s hopes and sent them back east or into town to earn wages. Still, Jefferson was such a grand theorist of this ideal of America, it’s hard to shake people’s ideas that it’s the ideal — even before the 1950s came along.
    Oh, also, since the 17th century at least, [I am pretty sure that] the statistics show only a 2 or 3 year discrepancy between men’s average age at first marriage and women’s. Although that’s one set of studies I really have forgotten. The concept of the man in his mid- or late twenties marrying the woman in her teens really only existed among the upper nobility and royalty of Europe. It wasn’t the practice among anyone else [I don’t think], at least in part because the women were earning money for their families and their future households (while learning the skills the community considered necessary to manage a household), too.
    I want to think a lot more about whether the economic patterns we see today are historically unprecedented. I’m not entirely sure that I think a long period of economic adolescence is so unusual, at least not on a world-wide basis. Not that the terms of that economic immaturity have ever captured the unique circumstances of today’s twenty-somethings, but, hmmmm. Intriguing questions here.

  2. Jody Says:

    Hard to shake people’s allegiances to the Jeffersonian ideal.
    Is the comment to amend a comment irritating, or normalized by its frequent geeky usage?
    Why don’t Typepad allow editing of comments?

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    I don’t think the “economic adolescence” is so unusual — I think what’s unprecedented is the expectation of independence combined with the structural forces that make it hard to achieve. The idea that it’s a sign of failure for an unmarried 20-something year old to be living with his or her parents.
    And definitely, one of the things that made America different from Europe was that young adults could be independent from their parents (or parental figures) at much earlier ages. This was generally true even when there wasn’t cheap land available, since there were labor shortages which led to the breakdown of the apprenticeship system.

  4. Tamar Says:

    Hi there, I’m new to your blog and really enjoying it. I would add to your observations the following: unless your bachelor’s degree is a preprofessional one or highly relevant to in-demand job sectors (i.e. computer science or finance), competition for jobs is fierce, and the jobs available are quite often glorified clerical positions. The result is that after fighting for a salaried position with benefits, one is left doing a job that any high school graduate could do. (This has been the experience of my husband, my sister, and many others I know.) Jobs that require a college degree are often selecting for social class, rather than seeking someone with particular skills.
    Apart from holding a “practical” bachelor’s degree, there is nothing much to do except head back to school for a master’s degree. This is creating an economy that favors those with postgraduate degrees on the one hand, and high school diplomas or vocational training on the other. Plumbers and construction workers make a decent wage; so do holders of M.B.A.s, M.P.P.s, and Ed.M.s. Those with liberal arts B.A.s in hand? Not so much.
    As an academic, it seems to me we need to be more honest about the aims of a college education. Do I believe that everyone deserves and benefits from an education in the liberal arts? Of course. Do I think that the role of a university should include the handing out degrees in public relations and accounting? No. But I do think we need to explain that a liberal arts education is most economically useful for those who want to remain in the academy. It is admirable to love theoretical physics or English literature, but one should be prepared for the realities of going into the workforce with that type of degree in hand.

  5. jen Says:

    Tamar, I’m intrigued by your conclusion that the only way out of glorified clerical work is via a master’s. I myself came out of a land grant school with a BA in cultural history and started my professional life in (not even glorified) clerical work. I proved myself on the job, rising thru the ranks. I continue to see many situations where someone working in a semi-clerical position is able to win a better job through demonstrated ability and work ethic. (For example people moving from an admin position to sales to account management; from data entry to help desk to project management, etc.) Is my experience unusual?

  6. Random Kath Says:

    I agree with Jen – especially in this town, if you start out in a clerical position, you can easily move into higher levels after proving yourself on several projects. (Non-profits are really great for that, in my experience.)
    I personally think that a Liberal Arts education is extremely useful. With my English Lit background, I’ve often been pulled in to do lots of audience-specific writing and editing since that is a skill that, sadly, not many folks have. Also, people often don’t end up in the career they began in, so the ability to think “larger thoughts” is key to being flexible enough to change gears and do something different.
    Besides, most of what you do in a job you have to learn by actually DOING the job in the first place. Experience is sometimes the best teacher . . .

  7. Ailurophile Says:

    Jody is right about the age gap in marriages (see Stephanie Coontz, “Marriage, A History”). Amongst the peasant and working classes, both men and women married in their late twenties, because women as well as men were expected to bring a little something to the union, as well as develop necessary skills.
    The period of “adolescence” – mid-teens to late twenties – was usually spent working as a servant. It was the eighteenth-century equivalent of going off to college. This was way before the Upstairs, Downstairs era and servants were considered family, albeit junior members of the family who had to obey the master (just like the wife and kids did)*. There was no disgrace nor concept of menial work as far as being a servant was concerned; it was what working-class youngsters did, more like a life-stage than a permanent social class.
    There was, however, a HUGE age gap in marriage amongst the well-off middle class; men in their late thirties, finally established, would marry women ten to fifteen years younger (see Lois Banner, “In Her Prime”).
    Finally, up until about the mid-eighteenth century, younger man/older woman unions were very common amongst the working class; journeymen commonly married master’s widows, or farmhands would marry the farmer’s widow, and take over the farm or shop. It was one way for a young man to get a good start in life, and what with marriages being more business arrangements than love matches, widely accepted.
    *Remember in Wuthering Heights where Hindley Earnshaw, fresh from boarding school and taking over the Earnshaw farmstead, made the servants eat in the kitchen rather than at table with the family – aping the new practice of the more genteel like the Lintons. Nelly Dean was furious, and averred that Hindley’s father would never have done such a callous thing.

  8. Mrs. Ewer Says:

    The modern “young adult dilemma” can be avoided with a little planning:
    1. Finish college in 3 years rather than the usual 4-5.
    2. Marry young, so you can combine incomes and living expenses and use wedding and shower gifts to set up your first apartment.
    2. Move to a prosperous urban area where you can find interesting work with “just” a B.A., and work hard to advance quickly.
    3. Save and invest while your peers rack up irresponsible credit card debt and waste huge sums on clothes, beer, car payments, entertainment, travel, and nicer apartments than they really need.
    The above worked for me. I’ll be 24 this month. My husband and I are rapidly paying off our school loans, and we’ve already put 6 figures into retirement accounts and short-term savings.

  9. dave s Says:

    Draut versus Ewer – I think I’m with Ewer. People have an assumption that it is their due to have as much as their older siblings, parents, etc., and that if they don’t, the system is askew. I was the ‘boomer in the 70s’ you, Elizabeth, talked about, started a job with a number of other young graduates. They bought cars and rented apartments for themselves, and lived basically paycheck to paycheck. I figured there was room in my salary for a car payment insurance etc OR I could buy a house and take in roommates to help me make my mortgage. Seven years later their cars were depreciated, they had a lot of check stubs from their apartment rent payments, and my house had a lot of equity in it. I will say that I got a huge subsidy from the taxpayers of California, I went to Berkeley for $212.75 per academic quarter and graduated with a couple of hundred dollars in the bank and no student debt.
    In general, folks resist and resent any diminution in their workplace or life situations, relative to the remembered past. In the 50s a family could live on one income, if we can’t today the times are out of joint. But in the 50s that family was living in a 2-bedroom one-bath house and driving one car, and thinking hard about whether the kids had actually grown out of their winter coats from last year, and maybe they would visit another family up the street once in a while to look at their 10-inch black and white TV. I think you could generally do that today on one income, except for house prices, and house prices look like they will stop rising or even fall significantly.

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