LOOKING TOWARD AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
rancesca Guarino is a married working-class woman, the daughter of immigrants from Italy.1 She lives on Staten Island in New York City wi th h er husband, who is employed as a technician for a telephone company, and her three children. Their two daughters are aged seventeen and fifteen; they also have an eight-year-old boy, whom, without any false modesty, Francesca describes as “adorable” and “very attached” to his mom. She is a stay-at-home mother who believes that hers is the proper role for a married woman with children: “My parents are from the other side, and so we were raised with the old beliefs, and we believed that the mom should be home with the children raising children. In todays times it’s just not possible for most parents, but I’ve been fortunate and I’m home with my children.” Fortunate as she believes herself to be, with just the one income the Guarinos struggle to meet their children’s needs in an era of rising costs. Francesca does not know whether they will be able to offer sufficient help to enable their children to achieve economic stability, much less upward mobility. She wants to see them go “at least” to college and possibly further. She worries that the task of securing the future of the next generation has become more difficult in recent times:
I think everyone worries about the future. I believe [my parents] worried about the future, but I don’t think thev had the same worries that we do today. It changed. This world is just falling apart. You need more, and just nothing’s enough. There’s no set amount of money that’s going to be enough for someone to live in today’s times. I don’t know how the kids are going to make it. I just don’t know. As parents we just have to try to help them as much as we can with certain things—if we can.
From another economic and social niche, and all the way across the country, in sunny Berkeley, California, Susan Chase expresses similar con-
cerns. Susan is an attorney married to an architect; their household income approaches two hundred thousand dollars, and they have only two children to support. Yet Susan also believes that in her generation the challenge of simple class reproduction has become more difficult: “[Our parents] just kind of took for granted that we would grow up and be able to take care of ourselves, whereas I don’t necessarily think that about my kids—that they’ll be able to buy a house or support a family.”
Other parents throughout the economic spectrum worry that their children might even be downwardly mobile, rather than able simply to maintain, much less surpass, the achievements of their parents. A white, middle – class, and upwardly mobile mother was explicit about what she understood to be changing economic dynamics as she addressed the interviewer, a young woman just out of college: “I think yours is the first generation that is not expected to do as well as your parents. For the rest of us it was like a pyramid scheme: if you just muddled through, you would do better—and I don’t mean just [financially].”
To be sure, some parents quite simply assume that economic success will be reliably there for their children—as it had been for them. Indeed, as my research assistants and I talked with professional middle-class respondents, some were almost cavalier as they imagined secure educational and occupational futures for their children. For example, one white, professional middle – class father of one child contrasted his parents’ insecurity with his confidence in his ability to secure his child’s well-being:
[My parents] were of a generation that came out of the Depression and World War II, so [they] were mostly focused on are [their children] going to meet someone who’s nice, are they going to have opportunities for college, are [they] going to have opportunities for good jobs. And to an extent those are no longer our concerns, because those opportunities are there.
These optimists notwithstanding, most parents expressed concern about their children’s futures, and some intuited, even if they didn’t fully understand the dynamics of the contemporary period, that economic uncertainty might demand a different, and more flexible, approach to child rearing than had been their parents’ approach with them.