Adulting on Trial (Newsletter)

Excerpt from the Newsletter. Subscribe here.

With the month of November dedicated to book proposal writing, I am packaging up a rapidly expanding Scrivener file of notes and sketched-out thoughts into a couple of sample chapters that will appeal to a general audience. Like any former academic, I struggle with condensing those thoughts into an elevator pitch, but I’m getting there. I also am thinking through how to write about a book that focuses on a problem without depressing people. Is it possible to write about problems in a way that will appeal to a reader? Do books that focus on problems always offer upbeat solutions? 

To answer those questions, I have been visiting the local public library, while it remains open, and picking up random books off their new non-fiction shelf. The idea was to power skim through the table of contents of a dozen books to see how they find a balance between the problem/solution question.

But me? Power skim? Ah no. I keep getting sucked down the rabbit hole of all these books. 

One book that captured my attention is Failure to Launch: Why Your Twentysomething Hasn’t Grown Up… And What To Do About It?  The problem is right in the title — young people are having trouble moving on with their lives after high school. They’re not finishing college, finding that first job, getting married, and getting the hell out of the house. The author’s solution? Let them fail.

There’s a whole genre of parenting books devoted to the idea that kids are too coddled and unable to survive in the real world. The villain is the dreaded helicopter parent – a trope that keeps on giving. But these books often fail to provide some data to back up their observations. Are kids more likely to be unemployed than the past? How do we know that kids have lower independence levels than in the past? If kids are less likely to have a job, is this because they have poorer adulting skills or has the bar been raised too high? I would love for those books to examine competing alternative hypotheses and rule them out, because I’m boring like that. 

Another book that ended up in my stretched out tote bag is Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson. This book grew out of a viral Buzzfeed essay, where Peterson vented that she was so massively overworked that her cooked brain couldn’t handle basic life tasks anymore. Peterson’s work path — academic turned journalist – is similar to mine. I can relate to her workaholic and perfectionist tendencies.

I’m not a big believer in generational studies, so I blipped over the whole millennial v. boomer arguments in her book. (What about Gen-Xers?) Peterson argues that millennials are so tired out and are struggling with basic “adulting,” because the world is more fucked up than it used to be. Instead of pensions, they get 401K plans. Young people today don’t have health insurance. Rather than stable, union-protected jobs, they’ve got the gig economy. She said she wasn’t able to start a family, because she’s been working too hard for too little money. Her solution is just a paragraph in the conclusion – burn it down.

Two books with similar problems — young people are struggling — but they diagnose the causes of the problem differently — well meaning parents v. hyper competitive, cruel society/economy. 

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post about helping Jonah with work stuff — letters of recommendations, resume, internship job boards, and all that. There are more tools than ever before to find a job, but there aren’t a whole lotta of those jobs. It could be a COVID thing, but after spending an hour going through pages and pages of information on his college’s online job board, we didn’t find much available for kids with a liberal arts major.

I’ve been helping Jonah with job chores, because a lot of these tasks aren’t terribly intuitive. He’s also overloaded with five upper level classes right now. He’ll probably have to dig into these tasks in more depth over winter break, even though other parents tells me January is too late to find next summer’s internship. When I was his age, I worked in a friend’s dad’s solenoid valve factory. Things are more complicated than they were in the past. 

A few years ago, I wrote a popular article for the Atlantic about how parents have gotten more involved in their kids’ college lives. One parent told me that she had to play a strong role in her daughter’s college life, because things were just too hard today and mistakes were extremely costly. When her daughter didn’t hear from the internship office, Stacy called the school.

“For $65,000 [in full attendance costs], you can bet your sweet ass that I’m calling that school … If your children aren’t getting what they’ve been promised, colleges are going to get that phone call from parents,” Stacy said. “It’s my money. It’s a lot of money. We did try to have her handle it on her own, but when it didn’t work out, I called them.”

Steve and I are trying to find a path between these two viewpoints. After some discussion, we decided to only help Jonah when he asks for help. I mean with two PhDs for parents, we can certainly navigate him through a college campus and school work, but we’re letting him steer his own ship through the rough waters. We’ll come in like the Coast Guard, when he asks for help.

But we also recognize that things are seriously more complicated and competitive than ever before. We’re not giving him “in my day, I figured it out all on my own” speeches (even though it’s true.) 

In the end, I take comfort in statistics, as I do so often. Having made it through ¾ of college, Jonah’s highly likely to finish. And then once he’s done, he’ll probably get a job making around $40,000, because that’s what the numbers tell me. $40,000 is a very respectable salary for a first job. He’s a good kid, who has grown into my favorite political debate buddy and the guy who proof reads my essays. The kids may be struggling, but mine is okay.

Besides, if things don’t work out, we always have Plan B, which is to sell everything and to move the entire family to a goat farm in Vermont. 

17 thoughts on “Adulting on Trial (Newsletter)

  1. “mistakes were extremely costly”

    That’s it right there. It’s a powerful motivator. The financial risks are always so high and so hard to come back from.

    My refrain with my kids is that at a certain point, the college money runs out. We took inherited money and put it in 529s for them and when that money is gone, that’s it. We have no intention of taking any money out of our house or our retirement funds. (I did agree to teach overloads for a few years to help pay for S.)

    S’s plan now is to teach English abroad when she graduates, probably for a few years only. I am ok with this, but I also find it hilarious that she is turning into me.

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  2. Wendy said, “That’s it right there. It’s a powerful motivator. The financial risks are always so high and so hard to come back from.”

    And even if the financial risks aren’t high (and they generally are), mistakes are very time-consuming.

    “My refrain with my kids is that at a certain point, the college money runs out. We took inherited money and put it in 529s for them and when that money is gone, that’s it. We have no intention of taking any money out of our house or our retirement funds. (I did agree to teach overloads for a few years to help pay for S.)”

    We can cover undergraduate tuition via my husband’s faculty/staff benefits, but we didn’t save a lot for college, so we’ve told the big kids that we can cover ONE YEAR of dorm if they want dorm, and if they want to do more, they need to pay for it themselves. We haven’t touched our college savings yet, and I kind of hope that we’ll be able to stretch it out to help a bit with medical school living expenses, in case the 10th grader goes and doesn’t do a PhD/MD or whatever. But yeah, there’s no planet on which we cover medical school for the 10th grader, much as we think the 10th grader is a great kid.

    “S’s plan now is to teach English abroad when she graduates, probably for a few years only. I am ok with this, but I also find it hilarious that she is turning into me.”

    That’s great! She’ll have a fantastic time!

    So much better than doing this:

    https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/05/199957/graduating-with-student-debt

    That’s the classic $182k NYU BA story–the author did study abroad in Italy, Crete, Ghana and Argentina while majoring in journalism.

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  3. Here in NZ – we have a different college/university cost model.
    The govt stumps up the majority – and the student/parent have a certain amount as a co-payment. As student loans are zero interest while studying (and remain zero interest while the student remains in NZ) – almost everyone takes out a loan, rather than paying at the time. [NB: this is different to a generation ago, when uni was ‘free’ – but only a tiny minority of people qualified to get in)

    Even with a relatively generous taxpayer handout – there is still the perennial whining about re-paying student loans.

    For most people the student loan comes out around $15K for a 3-year undergraduate degree – including accommodation payments. Of course, if you’re studying medicine or dentistry – your costs are much greater – but you’re going to start your post-uni career on a $100K+ salary – so your repayment time will be about the same.

    The big issue for this generation of kids – isn’t the course payments it’s accommodation. Universities have very limited dorms – usually only a couple of hundred places – and have relied on cheap inner-city suburb student flats. These are usually a big old house – with 6 or so rooms, and students join together to rent it – and then subdivide the cost among themselves. It used to work out about $150 or so a room, which was manageable.
    However, house prices and consequently rents have gone through the room in NZ – and those inner city houses are either being spruced up for families to rent, or knocked down and replaced by 4 townhouses. Student flat places (if there are any available) are around $250 per week (just for room, not even power/internet/food), and heading upwards.

    So, an awful lot of kids are staying home with Mum and Dad, rather than participating in the ‘traditional’ student life.

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  4. And on the topic of the change between fully subsidized and part payment.

    When I did my degree (Undergrad BA with a double major in history and archaeology & post-grad MLIS) – it was ‘free’ (and I got a living allowance).

    A couple of years after I qualified, the govt switched to part payment and charged interest on the student loans.

    About 10 years after that, they took away the interest component on the student loans (and boy, were the people who’d payed them off bitter).

    2 years ago, the govt offered the first year of tertiary education (universities and tech, but also apprenticeships) free. [This was an election bribe]

    Impact on what’s studied:
    When I went to uni – there were a *lot* of people just doing generalist degrees – with little plan or idea of what they’d do when (or if) they qualified. There were a chunk of people (including my sister) who regarded uni as a wonderful social experience and education was very much secondary. There were some perpetual students – who seemed to have no plan to ever get a job. There was little support for developing a career path – it was just assumed that your qualification would gain you a career, and you’d just work it out as you went along.

    That all changed with part-payment and student loans.
    There was suddenly an enormous interest in ‘vocational’ degrees (if I’m paying all this money, I’d better come out of it with decent job prospects). Generalist BA degrees lost a huge number of students (and consequently staff), and Business/Computing/Engineering/Law degrees got a big boost. [Medicine has always been above this – as they have a strictly limited number of places – and the competition to get in is insane]

    Over the last 10 years, this has swung back a little. Career paths are still important – but there is more understanding that the ability to research and synthesize knowledge is an important career skill – just as much as being able to run a statistical analysis. There are still some perpetual students (I have a cousin who is spending her inheritance from her parents on going to uni (just enrolled for her 8th year – now doing a Masters of Public Policy) – but they’re rare. Most people see uni as a continuation of school – setting them up for their career.

    The widening of the student base – study is open to all (in theory) – has resulted in some quite strict caps on rolls in the popular schools – and an inflation of the academic requirements to get in. Law, for example, now requires a A average in the first year (Law intermediate) to ensure a place [there are scholarship places or minorities, who don’t have to meet this level] – (if you don’t get in, your law papers aren’t wasted – they count towards credit in another degree).

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  5. I’ve noted before that for high SES parents, the message we are acting on is that we are living in a winner takes all world, and that children need to be set up for winning that game.

    We will pay full price for college (and paid for 22 children years of private school). We recently discussed that we would buck up for law and medical school, too, if desired (for which a student pays either with money or loans). Other degrees — some, I don’t think you should pay for. If you can’t get into a PhD program without support, I think you should reconsider your plans. I don’t know the scoop for MBAs (which I think you might have to pay for), teaching degrees, MPHs, . . .

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    1. Agree about the PhD. I have a US-based friend who’s a senior academic & has said that if you can’t get a scholarship to do your PhD you either need to re-think your topic or your career.

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  6. And on getting a job post uni.

    I think that people either have good ‘job-getting’ skills/personalities or don’t. And having a qualification (even a good qualification) isn’t really relevant to their ability to find a job (except in very specific roles where you need the piece of paper as the entry, and there’s little competition).

    I know people with good degrees who struggle to sell themselves in an interview. And, conversely, people who’ve barely scraped a pass who sail through (sometimes into jobs beyond their ability).

    It sounds to me as though your Jonah is in the ‘he’ll find a job, no problem’ category.

    In my own family, my sister can find a job at the drop of a hat. Zero qualifications (but tons of ability – particularly in relationship-heavy roles) and people like her. My brother is a tech nerd. He can do just about any computer job, but lacks those good people relationships skills that make a person easy to hire. Luckily, he’s now in the mid-career position, where references from your boss count a heck of a lot more than wowing people at the interview. Me, I’m about in the middle. Very competent (though I says it as I shouldn’t), and able to do OK in interviews – but just don’t have the instant people connection that makes people love me.

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    1. Ann said, “And, conversely, people who’ve barely scraped a pass who sail through (sometimes into jobs beyond their ability).”

      One of our old friends is a guy who eventually got diagnosed as bipolar. At least before he started a nasty mental health spiral, he was able to get all kinds of jobs that he really wasn’t qualified for.

      I’ve reflected on this issue a bunch recently, because one of our kids is very bright, but doesn’t “show” well. I’ve griped to my husband that it’s likely that people who are more personable but with half the smarts are going to make twice as much. But, fingers crossed–kid may yet acquire some social graces.

      I suppose this is why in the old days, well-heeled families used to send their daughters to “finishing school.”

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finishing_school

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  7. Sorry, taking over the comment stream here:…..

    Laura said ” Do books that focus on problems always offer upbeat solutions? ”

    I don’t know about upbeat – but I’m not that keen on reading a book that offers *no* solutions – that, to me, is depressing.

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  8. And I’ve been around long enough that I am bored with books that offer the same solutions or the ones that just exhort people to behave differently. Or even worse, exhort *other* people to behave differently. Especially parents and especially mothers.

    As an example, I have lots of opinions on raising children. But, ultimately, everyone in this comments thread knows how to care for their children better than I do. I mean that should be obvious, but I find it worthwhile to remind myself very explicitly.

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  9. I really like Jessica Lahey and though I haven’t read the book, I think that her message is less exhortation because I thin she talks about the tools of how to give the “gift of failure”. She’s asking parents to learn how to let their kids fail in the ways that aren’t high risk.

    This is also the message of Erika Christakis, to support the kids in the important things and not put the burden, say, of “active shooter drills” on the heads of Kindergartners, but to let them fail in learning that a friend doesn’t like them or that the can stumble on the playground. It’s the same principle as Wendy Mogel’s blessing of a skinned knee, in which she says that we simultaneously protect children from the slings and arrows of minor misfortune while demanding that our children be ready to take on the mantle of leading and fixing the world.

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    1. bj said, ” It’s the same principle as Wendy Mogel’s blessing of a skinned knee, in which she says that we simultaneously protect children from the slings and arrows of minor misfortune while demanding that our children be ready to take on the mantle of leading and fixing the world.”

      That is a very interesting point.

      It’s not fair to hand kids responsibility for things they have no control over.

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      1. I find that the hardest thing to teach my kids is how to plan ahead. For me, planning ahead eases anxiety and gives me a path forward. I don’t handle surprise well, so I try to reduce it. (This observation coming to you from having watched S4Ep2 of The Crown last night and wondering WTF Margaret Thatcher was thinking.)

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      2. I think there’s a hardest thing for every child and one of the issues of modern day parenting is that we sometimes think we can fix them all (and, that we are prone to thinking that the ones that we do, that we are good at will be similarly simple for our kids).

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