Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

What Will They Do When They Grow Up?

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?


Domenico Bettinelli said...

I think generational professions tend to be those in which the younger generation can join the older generation in working at an early age. So either they join dad out on the farm or building houses or, after college in the law firm or the bank offices. There are so many rules and regulations against nepotism these days that unless you own your own business, then creating generational cycles is difficult.

There are, of course, exceptions: nurses, doctors, police, firemen, teacher. These helper professions have their mystique beyond the job itself and often carry over into the home life in various ways. In fact, four of those five have unique uniforms, not to mention honor codes and codes of conduct and oaths, that create an impression on children.

As the father of girls who I expect will either marry or enter religious life, I sometimes wonder if we do them a disservice by expecting them to go to college and start a career. Carrying the burden of college debt (there's no way we can afford to pay for college) often becomes an obstacle to entering religious life or starting a family. Should we instead help them into interim careers that can be set aside when their vocation comes calling? What if they intend to continue working, as either a single woman or a working mom?

BenK said...

Multigenerational careers start because 'work comes home' or never leaves it. Coworkers come for dinner; families go to award ceremonies; and so on. Circles of relationships center around particular kinds of work or workplaces.

If work is a mysterious distant place with no particular relationships...

Darwin said...


The two obvious hesitations I would have there are:

1) I know a number of good Catholic women who would very much life to marry and have a family but have not successfully found a husband as of yet.

2) College and work are two the primary places people get to know future spouses (the third obvious one being church.) I certainly never would have met MrsDarwin if she hadn't gone to college.


Probably true. And I suppose that's one of the key differences from the world of the Buddenbrooks. I certainly don't have any particular preference that my children go into pricing analytics, or that they work at a company in the particular industry that my current employer is in. But that leaves things open to the wide swath of "good jobs" without a whole lot of direction.

Jill G. said...

Coming from a family of engineers (both parents and 3 daughters), I would say that there are many factors that influenced our career decisions. Definitely the familiarity of the field from dinner conversations, take your daughters/sons to work day, and various science projects with dad, but also a frank discussion with mom about making a living at a certain level of income.

Emily said...

Interesting thing to ponder.

My grandpfather's a surgeon. My mom's a nurse, though neither of her parents went to college or worked in the medical field. My dad has worked as a blood banker since his teens. My husband does a similar job at the same company as my dad (he got into medical stuff in college-no family background). I worked in a hospital lab (a job that didn't require a degree, because I never got one) before I had my first baby. I think medicine carries down because it becomes familiar. You grow up listening to talk of transplants, bleeding out, being intubated, etc., at the dinner table. It's not gross or mysterious. I would not be surprised if one of our children chose to follow a medical career as well.
This can obviously apply to many careers. I think some are probably more likely than others...everyone talking about their office job strikes me as pretty boring. Medicine, teaching, law, those are things I can imagine might have more to talk about and hence be topics of family conversation more frequently. Our children are still young, but they are already showing great interest in our family farm, and we talk a lot about ways they could make money in agricultural areas. We'd love to see them be able to skip college and be self employed, but don't know if that will be possible. We do want them to know there are more options out there besides going to college and picking a career off the list. I say talk to your children more about this. It's a really, really hard choice to make and one should have as much info as possible before making it, because it's often hard to go back, too.

Anonymous said...

Domenico Bettinelli--
Do you have a community college in your area? If so, college may be less expensive than you think, and the credits your children earn there will most likely transfer to other colleges and universities. In many areas, students may earn credits in high school as well, which results in savings later on. Students do not have to take on gigantic amounts of debt if they are flexible about when and where they earn credits. A bonus is that community colleges may be less political than four-year institutions.
(And before you ask--I am a professor at a community college!)
I agree with you that students should try not to take on excessive debt, but as our host observes, not every woman is able to marry, and the circumstances of life may not be what we expect.
I use my late father's family as an example. My father had three sisters, born in the 1920s or early '30s. One sister went to college, married, had four children, and had a lifelong career as a dietician. Another went to nursing school and eventually trained as a nurse anesthetist; she supported her three young children with that career when her husband's previous undisclosed marriage came to light and she had to get an annulment. The third sister was considered to be in delicate health and never received an education beyond high school, but her husband died when their children were five and seven years old. She struggled with poverty and low-paying jobs all her life.
No one knows what the future will bring. A child with the ability and interest to succeed in college should seriously consider the possibility, whether she will develop a career or become a homeschooling mother or both.

Agnes said...

I think, when it comes to career decisions, the other factor besides supporting family and a level of lifestyle is to think about what one can do to other people, to make an impact on the world, doing that particular job, what dream the teenager has about her/himself. Not all jobs, of course, but quite a few of them is a part of forming one's identity (helper professions, managing a family business, producing something, using one's professional skills in making a religious orgainsation work efficiently etc.) I remember when my high school teacher, a nun (!) encouraged us to pursue our dream, to try ourselves out, to make an effort to become what we wish to be (profession-wise).
Also, my father used to say that it's a blessing if someone is able to do something for a living/to support their family which they actually enjoy doing.
In my experience even if a particular profession doesn't go down the family, the type of work often does. My father had a small private business of his own at the earliest time the changing Communist laws allowed it; 3 of his 6 kids (not me :-) ) are now in small scale private business they own/manage, with all its advantages and drawbacks.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Catholic woman who wanted (wants...) to be married and have a family, but for whom it seems not to be in the cards. Even if it is, it will have happened much later than normal, and so I've spent many years finding out what happens to someone who expected, hoped, and trusted that she would get married or enter the religious life but doesn't. I am grateful beyond words for my university education, the experiences it provided, the fascinating and eye-opening people it has connected me to, and the engaging and enjoyable career it made possible.

I have struggled greatly with coming to terms with my life as a single, childless Catholic woman. It is not just because I would like to have a spouse and children. It is also because the people I love and admire most have placed such a high value (both implicitly and explicitly) on having a family that it is very difficult for me to believe that without a family my life is more than some cosmic hiccup, that I'm not like bread dough that failed to rise. Having grown up in a community that valued marriage and family, consistently spoke as if we would all end up married, and encouraged us to reign in various behaviors (like borrowing money to go to college) because we would probably have kids we'd have to pay for, it's still very hard to think I'm not a failure or a mistake for not having kids. I was homeschooled; my life revolved around my family and my family's friends/friends' families. Family life was the only decent life I knew. But I don't have a family now, and so it's hard to feel like I'm not missing a prerequisite for a decent life. It's even hard to feel like a bona fide adult.

Families and marriage are so important and valuable. My family and broader community weren't wrong to say so and act so. I'm writing just to encourage parents to be very cautious about what they imply--explicitly or otherwise--to their children in terms of what it takes to have a meaningful, worthwhile, not-failed adult life. It pained me to read Domenico Bettinelli's thoughts about his daughters. On the one hand, I understand them, especially in light of the ridiculously high cost (and often questionable quality!) of a university education. On the other, they are suggestive of the very expectations that have made what is on its own a pretty heartbreaking situation for me almost unbearable.

Darwin said...

Well put, Anon.