Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Oh Dad, poor Dad

My poor father is betraying some of the fear and concern he feels for my career, despite his general nose-to-the-grindstone attitude.  After several martinis, he unexpectedly asked me, "If you get one of these jobs, what will you do?"

I didn't know what the hell he meant, either, so don't feel bad.  It eventually became clear to me, after a few more questions, that Dad is still processing a fact of academic life that I have already accepted: that I have little choice but to accept any job that comes my way, no matter where in the world that might be.

My father is a homebody by nature.  Every now and then, he gets up the gumption to go on vacation somewhere far from home, but for the most part he is comfortable staying close to his usual stomping grounds.  He lives in the same city in which he was born, raised, and attended college.  His father did more or less likewise.  And, although this wasn't apparent to me until recently, he had simply assumed — much like the rest of my family, I suppose — that I would do the same.  Oh sure, maybe one can save a lot on taxes by moving from the city itself to the near suburbs, or perhaps one gets a job in the next town over, but overall my family has stayed remarkably close to the home base established by our immigrant generation.

I broke the mold with a sledgehammer by going to Dear Old University for grad school, further from home than Dad has ever contemplated living.  It took the family a little while to get used to that, but they did.  Then again, perhaps they maintained the hope — although lord knows I tried to disabuse them of this idea — that all those years far away were an investment to be paid back in a good job back home in Hometown or thereabouts.  Whenever I mention a particularly attractive job that happens to be halfway around the globe, some of my relatives actually react as though I'd insulted them.  Dad never took it like that, but I guess it's still harder for him to accept than he usually reveals to me.  After a stiff dose of vodka, it comes out that he's scared of my moving far away, perhaps never to return, and almost certainly never to lead a life in any way similar to his.

In his worldview, a man* should be financially established by the time he's in his late twenties, with a career and long-term security at least visible on the horizon.  The fact that I'm now in my thirties and not yet in the permanent employ of any institution, and have essentially no liquid assets, terrifies him despite all my reassurances that this is what academics face on a regular basis.  As I've noted before in this blog, my parents don't (cannot?) truly understand the economics or the market pressures of academia, and so my whole career plan is a little murky to them; I wonder also if perhaps the relatively simple achievement ideology that my father absorbed decades ago has ceased to exist.  I guess it hasn't; one could always become an investment banker on Wall Street and make lots of money at a young age even when one's whole industry has collectively fucked the entire country in the ass.  But from where I'm standing, it seems difficult to believe that a 27-year-old person can possibly call hirself financially settled.  Industries die; jobs and investment capital move around the globe; life is fundamentally uncertain.  I can't help but suspect that the entire ideology revealed in my father's boozy anxieties is a relic of the past, a hangover from the post-WWII prosperity that provided the backdrop for my father's first interactions with the world.

Sorry for thinking through all of this in longhand.  Shorthand version: Dad expected that I would enjoy a nice middle-class existence like he has done.  I have ambitions right now only to survive, no matter where, no matter how.  I'll be a little staggered if I ever achieve anything that resembles previous generations' middle-class prosperity.  And even more than this intimidates me, it frightens poor Dad.

*Yes, there's a definite gendered element to this, but since I don't have a sister, it's a moot point.


  1. Yup yup ---- my dad was willing to move, but other than that it's a very familiar story.

    And I think the "this time has come and gone" is actually way more important than academia at this point --- I was reading Frantzen's _The Corrections_ and it's totally the same story. (I still haven't finished it, oof).

    My dad has a *pension* from one of his many jobs, and that, in addition to the 401k stuff, gives him a level of security in retirement that I don't think I will ever have ---- even many of my friends who work "regular career" jobs these days don't have a 401k... or if they did, they got laid off and are now temping or doing contract work.

    Sigh. Stupid globalization and monopoly capitalism.

  2. It really is amazing. I don't have many friends like me who dropped out of the PhD program, but I know it was right for me precisely because of what you describe above. I think I'm a lot more like your dad than you, even though I have lived abroad in "scary" places, learned a "scary" language, and travel now a lot for work. I just want to "settle down," and I want a small little rowhouse and I want stability and I want to have a home. Looking at it now, maybe the stability in your family made you want to go out in the world, while the insanity and instability of mine made me wish for the opposite. And what Sisyphus said: my mom is retiring at 60 next year with a several-thousand-a-month university pension, a very healthy retirement situation (because of several inheritances), and has plans to work at a tiny bookstore and travel the world. That will not be me. That will not likely be any of us. Although, I have to say, I do have a 401k :)