What do American parents care about today?
I am always interested in research about my fellow caregivers, so I just read a discussion of a new Pew Parents Study in a New York Times newsletter with interest. The study was summarized by opinion columnist Ross Douthat. My response here is not to the study itself, which you can find here, but to Douthat’s discussion of it—which focuses on what he calls “workism.” In fact, he has grimly titled his newsletter article “Is ‘Workism’ Dooming Civilization? Notes on the New Pew Parents Study.”
“When you ask [American parents] to give weight to professional aspirations versus personal ones, to compare the importance of their kids being ‘financially independent’ or happy in their work to their getting married or having kids, finances and jobs win out easily—and by an extraordinary margin, in fact. According to Pew, 88 percent of American parents rate financial success and professional happiness as either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important for their kids. Only about 20 percent give the same rating to eventual marriage and children.”
Douthat goes on to highlight “the general fertility decline” in the world and to decry the possibility that parents think “the essence of a valuable adulthood rests in work and money.” That’s the worldview he says is called “workism” by Derek Thompson.
Let me just say: This interpretation is myopic. The commentary above comes from a perspective completely outside the everyday struggles of today’s American parents. So let’s talk about the real question: Why do we, as parents, care so much about our children’s eventual jobs and work?
The answer is obvious: Because living in the US—as people, but especially as parents who are raising children—is incredibly expensive, and it’s only gotten worse in recent years. Naturally, if we want a good life for our children, given what we are experiencing, we want them to not just survive, but to be able to build a life without constant financial worry and precariousness, and that means finding decent jobs and work.
This has nothing to do with having bad values, or not caring about character, or our kids’ eventual happy family lives, etc. It’s just the reality on the ground!
I’ll paint you a picture of the financial concerns and risks plaguing parents—ones that I often think will be even tougher on our children as they grow into adulthood. Note: I will get to a few Stoic parent reflections at the end!
1. Childcare. Our kids’ lives start with sky-high childcare costs in the US. Where I live in California, it literally was going to cost me more to pay for my children’s full-time daycare than the income I would make from working full time. I pulled back on work during my kids’ younger years in order to try to balance both being a full-time mom and a part-time professional—working as a freelancer and consultant in evenings and during naptimes, and during part-time, part-day preschool, while actively parenting almost all of the time. I still did not make much income then, but I was fortunate my husband made more. This is a very difficult calculation for all the families I know! And many folks have to give up on work because of the cost of care, creating financial worries. (That’s not to even mention the dearth of paid parental leave nationally for new moms/dads caring for their infants!)
2. Education. Our elementary and secondary education systems have a range of problems, but here, let’s focus on higher education. For ambitious students who want to reap the rewards of the US’s top paid or most desirable jobs in many fields, our education system culminates in an insanely expensive college and/or grad student bill. Even public colleges are much more expensive than they used to be; I recently spoke with a man in his 70s who told me his family paid just a few hundred dollars for his whole education at the University of California. It’s mind blowing. A few students currently get free rides at universities for various reasons, and the competition for such benefits is fierce. But for most students, the education bills are so high that that virtually no one except the very wealthy can afford to pay. That means students and parents must shoulder loans, or students alone must take on loans; and someone will have to pay eventually. It creates decades of financial instability.
3. Health care. Health care is outrageously pricey in the US, and can cost a fortune even if you have a medical insurance plan. It is insanely costly (banktupingly so) is you don’t. People live in fear of getting really sick or needing surgery. Want mental health care? Hope you have a high paying job to afford to see a therapist. Many psychologists are not covered by insurance. The strain on parents supporting families with healthcare is high, especially if their children (or anyone in the family) has significant health needs.
4. Housing. In the US today, housing costs have gone through the roof. Rents are high; buying is prohibitive for many, scratching their “American dream” of home ownership. Alongside paying for other consumer goods that have risen in price with inflation, many families can’t afford their bills, and lots of parents have to hold down multiple jobs to make it work.
5. Lack of a safety net. There is little social safety net if folks fall off the path financially today. Can’t afford rent or mortgage for a couple months? We’ve all seen the tent cities in our major metropolitan areas. In today’s climate, we parents can imagine our kids struggling, without a home, if the worst happens. And that is mortifying. Community groups try to fill the gaps but the problems are huge. By the way, since adults are also struggling to save for retirement, we parents can’t necessarily keep supporting adult kids either—everyone is lacking a net to fall back on.
An important note on the safety net: During the pandemic, the American child tax credit was temporarily raised to provide relief to families with children. The child tax credit expansion increased payments to $3,000-3,600 per child for many. Some said this change was on track to cut child poverty in half in the US. But in late 2021, Congress failed to extend this legislation. The credit is now back down to $1,500-1,800, and poverty has increased again.
So….given all this, is it surprising that people want their children to grow up to get decent jobs and become financially stable? As parents we know how difficult it is to live without the income such jobs provide. We know how little tangible support there is for child rearing in general. Sure, we all love kids, but when it comes to the financial side—you’re on your own, folks! Maybe that’s why parents are hesitant to say that they insist that their kids to follow the same marriage/family path they did. (Or possibly, they also want their kids to choose their family lives for themselves! Again, independence and self-sufficiency!)
To dig a bit deeper, we need to ask ourselves: On a societal level, what is freedom in the US today? It means—in part—the kind of freedom of movement and action and respect of the body and mind that having financial stability can give us. If we want to be self-sufficient and able to make our own choices, and as free as possible from oppression by others, we need to gain a financial grounding for ourselves. That’s not my choice, that is just how our market-based society is structured. That is what American parents are facing—and that’s what parents want for their kids. (Unless we all decide to abandon being pro-social and become Greek Cynics like Diogenes and live in the street without even a cup to drink from, that is.)
Given everything I outlined above, blaming parents for instilling “workism” in children as Douthat does is unfair. Instead, how about asking how we can create real efforts to support parents and kids (with more than just words)? This doesn’t necessarily have to be government based—it’s possible see an upswell of support from private organizations. Could we look for ways to reduce the burdens on parents by putting funds towards preschool and childcare, by supporting tax credits that lift folks out of poverty, and by striving to make education more affordable at every level? Could we improve access to and costs of health care and mental health care (mental health representing parents’ highest concern in the Pew study, with four-in-ten U.S. parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point)? Could we find or build more housing for displaced families (which will be even more important if a recession sets in)?
In today’s world, and our current system, any good thing you want for your child comes with a price tag. And no matter how we feel about it, blaming parents and suggesting that financial independence should not be perceived as important really is not going to help.
One more thought is from a Stoic perspective. Stoics intend to become self-sufficient in all they do. That can include financial self-sufficiency, however you define it. It also relates to the question of our children’s ultimate success and happiness: In the end they are responsible for that. We’re trying to give them a proper foundation so that they can go out on their own, as humans, and find their own sense of human flourishing. Following a pro-social, clear-eyed, question-your-impressions Stoic approach, it would be short-sighted not to inform our kids about how the world around them works so that they can make their own choices for how they want to live. Ultimately, I hope my kids will find independence and self-sufficiency (not just financially but on every level!), as well as a sense of their own purpose and meaning, for themselves.
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About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.