The Next Generation

Allen Weissby Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR
President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System

The American Dream has been that all children— regardless of their family, social background, economic resources, or any other tangible asset—can become more successful than their parents.

But for the next generation, moving up the ladder is no longer the norm. This upward mobility of success, affluence and influence is now being challenged. In fact, more than ever before, more children have less of an opportunity to advance their lot in life.

This disquieting trend is well outlined in Our Kids by Robert Putman, a professor of public policy at Harvard. He shares life stories of high school classmates who graduated fifty plus years ago.

Anyone who has attended a 50th high school reunion—as I did this past year—can attest to the wide range of accomplishments of classmates. In my graduating class we had a two-time United States House of Representatives member. (We also had an individual who spent 20 years behind bars.) Almost universally, our upwardly mobile parents had high aspirations for their children much the same way their parents, many of whom were immigrants, had sacrificed so their children, our parents, could be first-time college graduates and professionals.

Now, the inequities in America are placing these success stories and in some cases, the Horatio Alger stories, in jeopardy.

There are two broad areas of inequity, according to Putman:

  • Inequality of income and wealth. The distribution of income and wealth in today’s America has never been so great. Much of the acrimonious debate among political factions these past few years is due to the wealth disparity. It has been reported that the top 1 percent of Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. In an historic sense, according to Why Nations Fail by Kamer Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson, two noted academic economists from MIT and Harvard, respectively, such wealth disparity combined with lack of mobility leads to disruption—and ultimately to the death of a country. The premise of the book is that those with the wealth and power block those who want to be upwardly mobile.
  • Inequity of opportunity and social mobility. “All men are created equal,” has been and continues to be the promise of America. We have long been concerned about whether young people from different backgrounds are given the same opportunities. Will everyone receive the same educational experience starting in preschool? Will every child begin his or her school day having slept in a safe environment, having had a good breakfast, and an appropriate set of clothing and books or digital device? If we embrace the thought that “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” and not think just of New York City but rather America, you begin to understand the challenge the next generation is facing.

Many of these inequities are due to America’s changing family structures. Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening sentence in Anna Karenina—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—is intriguing but not necessarily completely true in America today. Even happy families are much more heterogeneous than those of 50 years ago.

The previous generation’s typical family structure consisted of a breadwinner dad, a homemaker mom, and two or three children. “Ozzie and Harriet” were carefree and just the type of neighbors
you wanted to be around. In their neighborhood, divorce was uncommon, and births outside of marriage were rare in all social strata. It was a prosperous time; one working male parent’s income
sustained a middle class or better standard of living. Also, this was pre-birth control pills and premarital pregnancy usually resulted in a marriage, so children were raised by biological parents.

In the 1970s as baby boomers were finishing higher education and starting careers, the traditional family structure fell apart. Premarital sex lost its stigma overnight, shotgun marriages sharply diminished, divorce became epidemic, and the number of children living in single parent homes began a long and steady ascent to the current level. Today, about 26 percent of children under 21 are living with or supported by a single parent.

There are many factors which contributed to this change in family structure from 1965 to 1980:

  • Birth control pills, which delinked sex and marriage.
  • The feminist revolution transformed gender and marital norms.
  • Economic necessity created the two working parent family.
  • Economic necessity also reduced security for patriarchal heads of families.
  • Individualism and “self fulfillment” emerged.

The outcome of this changed family structure created a bifurcated class structure. The college-educated upper third of American society mirrors the 1950s Ozzie and Harriet, except that mom now works out of the home and dad splits the homemaking chores and actively helps with the kids. There is a division of labor and divorce rates have retreated. Children in these families still have a good opportunity to embrace the American dream of upward mobility.

Unfortunately, those parents with only a high-school education are part of a “fragile family,” as named by sociologist Sara McLanahan. Many times childbearing is disconnected from marriage with sexual partnerships increasingly less durable. Either parent may move on after a divorce, creating a blended family with step-parents and step-siblings. Otherwise, the children are raised by a single parent which can create additional stress and even multigenerational stress.

Interestingly, college-educated mothers typically delay childbearing and marriage until their late twenties or thirties, and that is six years later on average than their college-educated mothers. High school educated mothers have their first babies in their late teens and early twenties. Older parents in general are better equipped to support their children emotionally and materially.

Not surprisingly, better educated parents tend to amplify class differences; more education typically is associated with a higher income level. Thus a self-perpetuating path has been created: Better-educated, intact, traditional families beget children who are better prepared to flourish in a nurturing environment and will subsequently have more opportunities for upward mobility.

Conversely, less well-educated parents are stressed economically, and more likely not to have a two-parent household. Consequently, social and economic mobility are stifled.

Understanding, engaging, and having the desire and ability to encourage upward social mobility is good for everyone—children, their families, and our entire nation. Social mobility is a key aspect to helping everyone live a longer, happier, and healthier life.

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