Is parental social status a mixed blessing? On toleration for occupational drudgery

Many people assume that coming from parents with high social status is an advantage, because it would appear to increase the probability of gaining high social status for oneself. But what if parental social status is more like a weight on one’s shoulders, an obligation heavy enough that, in some cases, it might even be a losing ticket in the lottery of life?

My parents have very low social status. I am a statistical oddity for having become a tenured academic, which is a relatively high status position (although I wager it’s falling in the ranks as academia becomes discredited).

But I’ve been an academic for five years now, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder to understand why my job is worth doing. The volume of patently nonsensical and often ethically dubious make-work is so high that one of the chief intellectual puzzles I’ve become the most fascinated by is simply why everyone around me (myself included) is willing to work this job. And people are not just willing to work this job, they even continue to eagerly compete for it. That this has become a puzzle to me suggests that something about me is losing the capacity to do it, and yet for the moment at least — I’m still doing it.

In other occupations, the answer to such a question is obvious: people put up with all the nonsense either because they have no other choice, or because the money is worth it. But what is peculiar about academia is that most academics are skilled and connected enough to do many other things,  and the money is usually better in private-sector versions of academic fields. So if I am right that academia is becoming less and less worth it, given increasing loads of nonsense, I do think that the continuing passionate interest in either obtaining or maintaining academic careers is indeed a puzzling instance of lemming-like, behavioral inertia. But to call it herd behavior is too easy and not really satisfying. How or why does this particular herd dynamic hang together? A good theory would explain why academic investment varies across individuals (e.g., why is it becoming weaker in me, but not others?).

One possible explanation is the drive to meet parental expectations. The rationale is simple. If both of your parents were professors, or they had some other high-status occupation, you’ll have a higher tolerance for nonsensical make-work, because you don’t want to fail in the eyes of your parents. Quitting because of a too-high volume of nonsense would be existentially much more difficult than it would be for me, as their parents would view it more negatively than mine. Plus, they would feel their parents’ judgment more because their parents’ status gives their judgments greater credence. My parents, on the other hand, basically think I’m a highly-successful genius no matter what I do, and if for some reason they were to downgrade their opinion of me, my superior education would blunt the effects of that downgrading on me. Therefore, for an academic from high-status parents, maintaining their academic position is more rewarding than it is for me. They feel like they are representing something larger and historical and their parents actually follow what they do. I am doing something that most of my family does not really understand or care about.

For the moment, I’m carrying on. The big question is whether I am carrying on for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. My statistically improbable status background could give me a valuable edge in clarity, allowing me to see things that others can’t see and act on them with a greater daring that others cannot access (namely, that perhaps academia is a sinking ship from which one should jump sooner than later). Or, my statistically improbable status background could just make long-term success in a high-status career more difficult, and the correct attitude and behavioral adaptation would be to suck it up and stop rationalizing my weaknesses. I still don’t know the answer to this question, but I believe my basic observation about the causal role of parental status may be correct.

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  1. Georgi

    My parents are also low status, working class, but more conforming, because rebeling would lead to not having food (I grew up in a communist country). Even now that I’m a tenured professor in North America, for them it’s still about having enough money for basic necessities. And I find this drives me too. I don’t care about status at all. After finishing my PhD, despite great prospects in my field, I *chose* the lower status, teaching, institution, because of the money/work ratio. My assessment of the worthiness of staying vs leaving is still in terms of money, not status. Whatever edge I have in IQ/ industriousness that would have gotten me a higher status, goes instead towards boosting my money/work ratio. I manage to do it *mostly* while also being true to myself, as I find there is a direct relationship between cutting out the bullshit and improving my ratio. In other words, doing more stupid research, ascending in administration, or trying to please everyone (students/colleagues) only improves status and power but not my money/work ratio. This is pretty satisfying. I do shut up (rather phase out) in meetings and have a strategy of avoiding most of them, because, in my assessment, they don’t matter other than for power games. I might be wrong. But I am the best, truest, version of myself with students.

    If I quit, my parents, too, would not think any lower of me, as long as I would still be able to make a living. Because of their unconditional admiration, I find it easy to deal with my past peers’ and profs’ disappointment that I didn’t pursue a higher road. My parents are not even aware of rank/status differences among universities. If you’re right, maybe that’s why I don’t care about it either. Also, I don’t exclude leaving academia, once my children are older and I would have more time. My parents will still think I’m pretty accomplished just for having a university degree.

    • jmrphy

      Fascinating, thanks for sharing this. Money/work ratio might be the best metric for me too. You don’t find your teaching college to be high on the work side of the equation. Some say profs there have more obligatory work obligations than at research colleges. Not sure if that’s true. Sometimes I wonder about teaching working class people something really useful like computer programming or something at a community college or somewhere like that. Just teach some classes, no other expectations, no career climbing, just giving concretely valuable skills to people for reasonable sums of their money. But that’s literally just my imagination, not sure if that’s a thing that actually exists. Or just adjuncting and running some kind of side hustle, I know it’s not the security some people dream of but people don’t realize what the “security” costs them…

  2. Georgi

    In my teaching post, I have tasks outside teaching, like research, attending pedagogical conferences, meetings, committee work. I discovered that not only are they useless, politically driven and lately ideologically infested, but they are also largely optional. I’d be curious to know if my institution is particular in that respect. Maybe. At my college, people attend them to gain political capital, to socialize, and, frankly, to find meaning. Some still naively think think that the sputum produced by education research will help them become better teachers. I started participating into close to zero such useless activities a few years ago.

    I may be called upon by the administration at some point to account for my absence, but tenure, solid teaching, and acting with integrity in the classroom do shield me to some extent. I suspect it also helps that I maintain a low profile and I don’t have any climbing ambition.

    To comment on your idea of teaching basic skills to people: it is deeply satisfying. I teach college math (such as calculus and linear algebra), but I often times end up teaching numeracy skills, algebra and how to read graphs, because most kids (or adult students) don’t have these basic skills. And I don’t feel my intelligence, creativity, or knowledge underused at all (my PhD is interdisciplinary in the fields of math, linguistics, and philosophy of education). I find great pleasure and curiosity in observing and responding to human learning behavior, best of which is the joining in on the wonder of understanding stuff, doing stuff or even being turned on aesthetically by stuff. I even enjoy the sweet defeat of just not being able to teach some people abstractions, because some just can’t do it, or because I could have done better. Especially when I see it play out statistically with some consistency and I’m able to predict it based on the group’s makeup. There are many other aspects of teaching basic skills that are difficult, exciting, deeply human, rewarding…

    So I put in the 10 hours of work per week and then I enjoy my freedom. I solve real life complex puzzles like managing my mom’s recurrent cancer or treating my middle daughter’s OCD myself. And I buy shoes and spend time with my husband. You’re a bit younger than me, but once you’ll have kids or aging parents, the clarity you draw from your upbringing and defiant behavior genes, will be even more useful in dealing with all kinds of challenges, and being (mostly) content with yourself.

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