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.