My latest piece of commuter reading is Thomas Mann's 1901 novel Buddenbrooks, which follows a German mercantile family through multiple generations in the 19th century. The Buddenbrook family are grain traders who (as of the novel's beginning) have reached the point of being a notable merchant family within their region. Much thought is given to the continuance of the family fortune and name. When young Antonie (Tony) Buddenbrook falls in love while on summer holiday with a university student studying to become a doctor (in that place and time a lower level of society than that of her family) her father writers her a letter in which he reminds her that they do not merely live for themselves. They are links in a chain. It's with this image in mind that Tony agrees to become engaged to the prosperous merchant her parents want her to marry rather than to her university student friend.
Such dynastic concerns are alien to our modern, individualistic society, and yet family culture and background continue to have a large influence on how people do economically. I've found myself thinking about these things as own our children start to near college age. I myself sometimes feel myself an interloper of sorts in the business world that I have made my way into. I don't come from a clear set of family career traditions. Go back four generations and you have my dad's side of the family on small farms in the midwest and my mom's side working in silver mines in New Mexico. One of my grandfather's did a full career as a non-commissioned officer in the Navy, then worked in manufacturing. My other grandfather never went to college but during WW2 found his way into working in aerospace. My dad was a planetarium lecturer, living in the odd space between teacher, academic and entertainer. I studied Classics in college and through my teens had fostered various ambitions: writing, going into the Air Force, doing something in the film industry. What I actually did was get an office job through a temp agency, keep looking for the next step up, and end up spending the last ten years doing pricing analytics at gradually increasing levels of responsibility.
The other night I was talking to the older kids and asked one of them what sort of career she might be interested in, and what she might want to study in college. Given what a driven kid she is, I was a bit surprised that the answer was so heavy on negatives: Don't want to be a teacher or a writer or do anything with math or science or history.
Well. That rules out a lot of options.
Of course, this is an off the cuff answer late at night after a long day, so it probably doesn't do to take it too seriously. I did find myself thinking about it an inordinate amount, however, wondering if there's more that I should to doing to convey the type of work which is necessary to maintain the family in the style to which its residents are accustomed.
As it is, I don't tent to talk about work a great deal when at home. I spend enough hours dealing with work problems and personalities when I'm at the office, and I'm usually more eager to talk to MrsDarwin about things we have in common: books I'm reading, writing projects, the latest news or blog controversy. Regaling her with the doings of people she never sees, dealing with the cycle of setting financial goals and making plans to meet them, is not high on my conversational priority list. Yet I suppose in some sense that leaves work, and the earnings it provides, a mysterious process. I'm not really sure how the families which seem to produce generation after generation of lawyers, doctors, engineers and bankers pass those expectations on. Do they talk about the links in the chain, Buddenbrook-style? Or does it just get into the air after a few generations?