Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Telling the Future

The Boy's school recently had Back to School night, so the four of us went to see what there was to see. TB actually had 'greeter' duty at the front door, which taxed his patience a bit, but was a source of pride anyway. We wandered the hallways looking at various displays the kids had prepared, and talking with TB's and TG's teachers.

In TB's class – he's in the fourth grade – the kids had done essays on what they want to be in fifty years. The essays were left out on the tables for parents to read. As an exercise in shoe-leather sociology, it was striking.

Out of a class of a little over twenty, only two kids mentioned college, and only one – TB – had any recognizable professional aspiration. (He declared that he will get his doctorate in civil engineering at MIT, so he can build bridges and highways. About a year ago he asked me what the best place was to study civil engineering, so with my layman's knowledge of engineering, I suggested MIT, and that was that.) One other boy mentioned the state university, though he seemed more interested in the sports than in anything else. Every other kid wrote some variation on “I will finish high school, get a job, and get rich.” The teacher mentioned that she had to push some of them to mention finishing high school.

None of the boys – TB included – mentioned anything about getting married and/or having kids, though all of the girls did. (My favorite: “After graduating high school I will get married and have kids. The way I will accomplish this is by meeting a cute boy and falling in love.” It's phrased like a mission statement.) Several kids mentioned getting rich, though only one of them had any idea how. (She declared that she would become a celebrity, though it wasn't entirely clear what she would be celebrated for.)

I was proud of TB, of course, but also quietly horrified at how early and how cleanly class divisions are reproducing themselves. The gender split surprised me a bit in 2010; if nothing else, I would have expected at least a couple of the girls to mention college. The vagueness of the aspirations was striking, too. I expected to see prospective astronauts, baseball players, doctors, presidents, inventors, whatever; there was none of that. For all of the mentions of getting rich, none of them had the foggiest idea that money was somehow connected to a job. (I don't count 'celebrity' as a job, Kardashians or no Kardashians.)

TB's school is public, in a working class/middle class suburb. It's not tony, by any stretch, but it's hardly a disaster. If you were doing a documentary on failing schools, it wouldn't occur to you to look here. TB is thriving, and so is his sister. The class divisions weren't so apparent in her class, though to be fair, she's in first grade. The divide seems to occur somewhere between first and fourth grades.

I’m not sure where that kind of vision is supposed to come from, other than parents. I know the schools shouldn’t teach that college is somehow mandatory; it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. But it should seem like a realistic aspiration, especially in the fourth grade. And even for those who don’t choose the college route, some kind of “I want to be a...” sentiment should be there somewhere. (This being the Northeast, none of the kids mentioned the military, either.) If nothing else, I’d expect some sort of method to the “getting rich” goal.

I’m glad that TB has us to fill in some of the blanks, and to help him see beyond the confines of his town. I just worry about the ones who don’t have anyone to do that.

In fourth grade I told people I wanted to be a police detective, but what I really wanted to be was Nancy Drew.

Prior to that -- a ballerina and a fashion designer. Sometime after that -- a professional cheerleader or horse trainer. I didn't get around to "astronaut" or "scientist" until about freshman year of high school.

(And then, that being my most recent clear ambition at the time I graduated, I actually went so far as to major in physics and now am a scientist.)

But the best is my husband, who as a kid wanted to be an accountant... or an actuary. Of course, by high school he'd moved on to "punk rock drummer". He ended up a scientist too, like his dad.

I don't know how much you can read in to exactly what a child says she or he wants to do, but I agree it's better if they want to do something, and not just be comfortable...
Last year my DS's preschool asked this question. My DS said that when he grows up he wants to be a grown-up. I think that's a good aspiration.
I'm not sure if it was in the 4th grade or not, but I actually got a PhD and worked for years in the "job area" I selected in elementary school: theoretical physicist.

Regarding your sociology insights, my casual observation of test scores across our local schools suggests that a major transition takes place around 4th grade that gets enhanced around 8th grade. Fourth grade seems to be when Burnout culture (to borrow your phrase) starts to make itself evident.

However, some of your career choices probably don't look so good to an aware pre-teen. Astronauts? We have been phasing that out for years. President? Who wants to have their character assassinated? Celebrities have it easy, in comparison.

PS - There are better choices than MIT if you want to be a top civil engineer. Consider, for example, Rose-Hulman (tops the USNews non-PhD school list for Civil) along with West Point and Cooper Union, or Berkeley (tops for PhD granting) along with Illinois, Georgia Tech, and Purdue.
When I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be an astronomer. (That was a dream of mine, off and on, through about eighth grade. Then I learned how much math it would involve, and how I'm NOT good at higher math.)

If asked about marriage and kids, I probably would have said sure, I'd want those too. But astronomy was my big aspiration then.
How funny, in fourth grade I wrote a big report about how I wanted to be an astronomer too. I ended up a psych professor, but still I had high aspirations, and so did many of my class members. I remember a lot of doctors and lawyers among the projects.

My CC students still want to graduate and become rich without understanding how they are going to make that happen.
Sobering. But I'd put forth that American corporate mass-media and NCLB-style top-down educational governance (thank you GWB) don't WANT 4th-graders to think in terms of college. They want consumers, cannon-fodder, and assembly-line drones.

(Can you tell there was an election last night?!?)
my 22 year old son is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he "grows up">
I have a similar problem with my step-son. I've been trying to get him to think in terms of goals and actions to reach those goals. He's finally starting to see the process. It took two years of fairly steady "teaching" when the moments presented themselves. He still wouldn't think of it for a class assignment. He's in fourth grade now and I have no idea where his mind would be if I hadn't walked into his life. Probably still in the "I will be rich but have no career goals" group entirely. Unfortunately, his dad hadn't spent a whole lot of time explaining how life works so he wasn't getting it at home earlier.
I dunno, Dean Dad. All I wanted at that age was to be rich. All my friend wanted was to learn everything there was to know about science. I'm a lawyer who made $170,000 last year and am pretty happy with my life. She's struggling to find her next chemistry post-doc and wondering if she'll ever be able to buy a house or have children. Perhaps the "get rich" kids have the right idea. If nothing else, they'll avoid the trap of going for a PhD and wasting their twenties on a dead-end degree.
Maybe the change reflects a bigger social change: less well defined adult roles. About 30-40 years ago, if you wanted to be rich and successful, you likely saw a career path being a doctor/lawyer/accountant/business professional as the way to go. These have (mostly) clear paths, and most people's parents were good guides for this. Nowadays, some of the most successful people in the public eye have more hazy job descriptions. Mark Zuckerberg is young and wealthy, but is he a businessman or software developer? Also, if your parent is a "business analyst" or "inside sales associate", then what do those mean? Most people these days aren't "lawyers" or "engineers" but have lucrative, interesting careers. Just an idea.
I attended a STEM event for my PU employer last week. Middle and high school kids. I had a 5th grader say he wants to be a nuclear engineer. Several want to be inventors. One 8th grader is already planning to attend the Naval Academy. I was shocked at how well planned they all were. I thought I was good because at 16 I knew what I wanted to do.

Have some hope, 4th grade is a long way from college.
I once taught 4th graders. Some things to consider: How long did the students have to write this? What school work had they been required to do before that? What kind of pre-writing was done before the first draft? Was this a cutesy assignment for Open House or a serious assignment for Language Arts/Art? All these influences make a difference in the finished written products of a 4th grader.

This may have been an assignment which most of them wanted to just get done so they wrote what was easiest to get done.

Your son probably likes to write and will always find it easy to write something great in a short time. Only time will tell.

Another thought: perhaps the other parents haven't talked to their kids about college. If I were one of the other parents, I would use the assignment as an opening to discuss what our family valued as to adult occupations.

When I was in 4th grade I wanted to be a mother and go to college (because my mother made college sound like so much fun). Now I'm a PhD RN. Didn't even know what a PhD was in 4th grade; now I are one.

Thanks for an enjoyable post.
If there really is a class issue here, I'd hear "I don't want to be that different from my parents" in the family oriented goals and "except I don't want to struggle for money" in the I hope I'm rich goals.

At the same time, I don't think that lack of a concrete plan at this point means much beyond that a 4th grader knows almost nothing about the adult world. Most adult jobs are pretty hazy to a kid. I'm hazy myself on the jobs most of my former high school classmates got--marketing, PR, television broadcasting--and I'm sure they're equally hazy on what, exactly, I do all day.

Actually, it's kind of nice for them to think in terms of what they'd like their life to be like first before they develop concrete goals that support the vision.

I'd like to be surrounded by family and have enough money to live comfortably sounds like a pretty nice life goal. Really, it might sound a lot better to me than defining a life in terms of external measures of career success.
Fascinating post!! (and it kind of goes well with Laura/11D's post from this morning -- about her son's favorite future that I just read).

Anyway, yeah, it's facinating to see the gender divide and a bit depressing that the kids don't think about going to college -- obviously because their parents don't talk to them about it. Two years ago we were at MIT when my husband was participating in a workshop there. I kept telling my eldest son (who's in 3rd grade now, but was starting 1st grade at the time) that he should probably come to study at MIT someday -- he's definitely the engineering type. Very geeky already.

Anyway, thanks for sharing! Now off to read the other commenters.
I had no idea what an eningeer was when I was in 4th grade.

I still had no idea what an engineer was when I was a senior in high school and one of my peers told me she wanted to be one.

I wasn't a dumb kid - near the top of my class, college scholarship offers. But I came from a decidedly working-class family, all I knew of white collar careers was what I saw on TV. I had no real-life frame of reference for this. Nobody in my family had gone to college, nobody we knew was an engineer, and nobody in school had talked about this. It was all quite obvious to my peer, who had wealthy and well-educated parents, but not to me.

And it is a problem, because although I did manage to get the "go to college" message, I had no immediate examples of how it actually worked, how a person uses the college experience to build a career. And I'm still not sure of my goals, beyond paying the bills, here in my 30s.

I can't be the only one. In fact, I know I'm not. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post had an article about two young men who had graduated from a rough-around-the-edges DC high school and gone on to college. They were smart, charismatic, hard working kids, but they wanted to be, if I recall correctly, a sports journalist an artist and they chose their college coursework accordingly. Now, both have jobs in retail management (though at least they have jobs, right?). They aren't doing badly for themselves, but it seemed pretty clear that they had no idea how to set goals beyond completing college. It's a real gap for people who don't have role models to show the way.

Yet another reason I'm happy I married my wonderfully geeky husband with the engineering degree :)
Not trying to start a debate, but I'd wonder how many of the girls have moms who work. They might be stating that they 'want to get married and have kids' because that is what their female role model does, regardless of what type of higher education she might have. I am continually amazed that in my modest town, how few moms in my daughter's second grade class hold jobs outside the home.
I guess it's more of a sign of my school's socioeconomic status than I thought, but I remember the 4th grade girls all being in love with horses and dolphins, and therefore wanting to be vets/horse trainers/marine biologists when they grew up. I'm sure Voyage of the Mimi had an impact on the last one, but the horse thing was there regardless.

There were a decent number of nurses and teachers, too, since we were exposed to many examples of those. I hate to perpetuate the stereotype of these as female-only jobs, but given an artificially binary choice of girls who want to grow up like Kim/Paris/Lindsay or those who want to be "like Mrs. Johnson, my favorite teacher ever" when they grow up, I'd far rather they choose the latter. Even if their mothers don't work, they are likely exposed to these two examples of working women on a regular basis, so I wonder why that isn't sticking...
hmm... does seem odd to me...

but then I'm the child that for many years wanted to be a Pharmacist - because mom was a nurse but I found out Pharmacists made more money and I wouldn't have to deal with the nasty side of things... I had this whole plan to deliver prescriptions to all the grandparents, lol =D

I wrote a poem on being a vet because it had better words to rhyme though - but still something that required quite a bit of school...

this despite the fact that my mother is a "diploma" nurse, and my dad barely graduated from college before me (finishing his degree after spending 20 years in the military) - so background doesn't necessarily mean you won't pick things that require schooling...

all this to say - it still didn't mean much. I ended up with a degree in music performance and then went to library school to become a librarian... Not particularly close to any of those possibilities...
Heh, everybody knows that you don't get rich from working in America.
This is why programs like Expanding Your Horizons are so important - they teach kids about careers in math and science. The girl scouts is pretty good about this as well.

But cut them some slack - at the age of 9, most kids don't have the ability to plan things out too far ahead. That's a way of thinking that comes naturally to only about 5% of people (the INTJs of the world). It's also a prereq for administration so it's not too tought to figure out where that tendency came from in your family....
Congratulations on your money, lawyer guy. Too bad you couldn't say anything about it without insulting other people. A PhD is hardly a "dead-end degree" and I certainly haven't "wasted my twenties" getting mine.

The average postdoc salary and the median salary in the US are about the same, so your friend should be able to buy a house and have kids just like most people in America do. If she's hanging out with wealthy people who need to constantly remind everyone how much money they have (like you did here), of course she'll feel poor. She doesn't need a different degree, she needs different friends.
Post-docs typically last 1-3 years and then you have to find another job, often in another city. That *does* make it very hard to buy a house: you won't have any equity by the time you may have to sell it, and if you can't sell it you're in big trouble. And you may have a hard time convincing a bank to give you a 30 year loan with a 2-year temporary job... And it makes it hard to want to have kids. The risk of temporary unemployment is a bigger threat. The moving is harder. And if you get a tenure-track job, raising children while navigating the must-get-funded, publish or perish, high stakes pre-tenure system? Not easy.

I don't regret my PhD, but there's a reason I took it to industry rather than academia.

And for women, the stakes are higher. Waiting 'til 35 or older is medically risky. Pregnacy and maternity leave and motherhood don't combine easily with the grad-school/itinerant post-doc lifestyle, or the stakes of the tenure system, or the insecurity of adjuncting.

Doensn't mean getting a PhD is a bad choice, but the reality is, it's not easy to combine with the goal of a settled family life, especially for women. "Lawyer guy" is a little more cynical than I would be, but it's true that noble dreams like "scientist" and "astronaut" and "artist" and "dancer" and so on often require a lot of sacrifices and offer little reward. Not that I think the fourth graders know that yet. But its true that they are less liable to have their dreams crushed by reality if they never have those naive dreams in the first place...
Sure, it's hard to buy a house as a postdoc, but he said she wasn't going to buy one EVER. I think waiting two or three years for that permanent spot isn't so bad. And many people I know in industry move around a lot, too- in fact, almost all of my friends from college lived in at least two cities in their first five years out, while I was in grad school. He was making it sound like she was so underpaid that she could never afford a mortgage, which doesn't make sense.

As for the children, well, I don't know of any job where it's easy to juggle children and work. *Maybe* K-12 teaching. The early 30's are cruel to women because that's when you're far enough in your job to get some responsibility, yet you're most likely to need to back off in order to have the kids. I don't think this problem is unique to academia. You could say the exact same thing about law, in fact, and add huge student loans on top of it.

I know many postdocs who have kids and houses. It's not impossible.
S&E grad students get paid ~$24K to study. Law students pay ~$40K to study. That means lawyers have a mortgage without a house when they graduate. And oh yes, those $170K jobs are not common. OTOH, there are not enough jobs for the graduate students we are training.
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