Over at Quod She, Dr. Virago asks: "Hey, Ph.D.s, are you better off than your parent(s)?" This is in response to a really interesting conversation, particularly with thefrogprincess, about whether people enter Ph.D. programs in search of upward mobility. (See comments to this post.)
I started to answer there, and then realized I was writing a frigging book, so thought I would take it over here. But anyway, here's an answer from this no-longer-faculty Ph.D.: No, I would not say that I am not better off than my parents in terms of finances or career stability or qualitative factors.
Finances: I never knew how much my dad made (my mom was a SAHM), but I think that tells you something – that I didn't need to know. I am quite sure, though, that it is significantly more than I have ever made (throughout my life, he was the VP of manufacturing for Gillette, though he had done other things earlier in his life to get to that point – he was 48 when I was born). For one thing, he could support a family of four in a big gorgeous house in an expensive part of the country, without my mom working for pay, and we had everything we needed and a lot that we wanted (lessons, activities, that kind of thing) (of course, my mom's labor made a lot of this possible!). When I was 11 my parents had a pool put in our back yard. My sister and I both went to elite SLACs in the northeast that my parents paid for in cash. We had three cars, so I took one to college my senior year, then my sister took it to college her senior year. At 42, I could not afford any of these things, and if we had a kid now, I am quite sure we would not be able to pay cash to send him/her to an expensive private college.
Now, that does not mean that I'm currently badly off, because I grew up a very privileged kid. I'm not in the gutter or the poorhouse or anything like that (though I do currently have a crapload of credit card debt for various good/not so good reasons), and I'm not bemoaning my life. But no, I am not better off than my parents financially.
Career stability: Well, it's kind of hard to compare this, because first, my dad was one of the last people who fit the "work for the same company for 30 years and retire with a gold watch" model. You just don't have that any more. But my career stability feels like much less than my dad's, because I feel like I've never really managed to be established in a career (I taught as a full-time prof for 9 years, which is actually pretty established, but it never felt like it at the time, because I never made it to tenure). In some ways you could say my career stability is better than my mom's, since she was a SAHM, but she was a nurse in London before getting married (and, I think, a very good one), so if she hadn't married at time when you gave up your job and followed your husband, she would have had a very stable career.
Dr. Virago's point about looking at one's parents' lives through a feminist lens is interesting, because as noted, my mom's career was derailed because she got married–and that was what you did, you followed your husband and stayed home and raised the kids and took care of the house. And I'm glad I'm not in that position. But my mom sees me and my husband try to negotiate where to live and what jobs to take and what careers to pursue, and her take on it is that "Life is so much more COMPLICATED these days." And she's right. I prefer this path (but then, I've been brought up to prefer it), but it's not necessarily easier. And honestly, right now (coming off of three years of school/no income) I'm as financially dependent on my husband as my mom ever was on my dad. So, in some ways I'm better off, but in some ways I'm not.
My mom did find the transition from independent professional life to SAHM difficult. But she adjusted, too, and loved her house and her garden, played tennis and made lots of friends through that, and quilted and did a lot of other creative things. There were occasional tensions over some of the distribution of labor/money, but she was quite happy. (I use the past tense because she's been quite lonely and unhappy since my dad died, though I think it's got better. But I think that's inevitable if you had a good marriage.) I think I'm quite happy, generally, but I would not say that my life is somehow clearly better than my mom's was. I would say my mom lived a life more shaped by patriarchy. But she also reaped the benefits of patriarchy (not saying everyone does, or that patriarchy's a good thing; just that it persists as a system only because it offers benefits to those it oppresses as well as those it empowers, and she managed to stay on the good side of it).
Other qualitative factors: I have had the luxury of pursuing work I enjoy. But you know, my dad also loved his job. LOVED it. It brought him immense satisfaction and he was quite depressed for a while when he retired because (as I think is common for men, especially of his generation) his identity was tied up in his work. But he adjusted, and ended up very much also enjoying his golf/tennis/newspaper-reading/driving around looking at stuff retirement lifestyle. (Partly this was due to my dad's temperament. He was a serious optimist about everything.) But in itself this is something different from my parents: I have no idea if, or when, or how, I will retire, and I doubt it will be to seaside condos in two lovely vacation spots.
I mean, I don't think I'm badly off at all. I'm generally happy and have enough money to survive (even if I'm living off my husband right now). And times are different enough that I really don't think I can compare their lives to mine. But the biggest difference, I think, is that I have never really felt "settled" anywhere, and I have a hard time thinking that's going to change in the near future. I'm 42; when my mom was this age, she had 2 kids, a dog, a house, a social life, and a very established life. She had a stable life. I don't want the kids, but I don't feel like I've ever had that stability (you spend grad school planning for the job you'll get when you finish; you get that job, you plan for tenure, or for how to get a new job; then I left that job, and went back to school, and am now starting over again, in a field that is much less of a guarantee of a good stable job/life than it used to be. My Ph.D. husband has gone through this process, too, just a few years before I did). Compared to my parents, I feel like a nomad.
(It might also be worth pointing out here that my very comfortable life was NOT a life of inherited privilege. Both of my parents came from very working class backgrounds – my dad was a coal miner's son, and his dad was killed in a mining accident when my dad was in his teens. My mom's parents were a vet assistant – which did not mean he had any education; it meant he held down the horses and cows – and a housemaid/nanny. The position I enjoyed growing up was one that my parents had earned and built in their own lives. This doesn't make me better or worse than anyone else – I just think it's relevant if we're talking about social mobility.)
Now, if I'm honest, I'll admit that if that kind of stable, established life was truly important to me, there are probably a lot of different choices I could have made to get that kind of life. At some level, I believe that the fact that I don't have some of this stuff simply means I decided I valued other things more, things that have been incompatible with that kind of settled, established life.
But no, getting a Ph.D. did not make me better off than my parents were. I can't say I would have been better off than them anyway, because they were pretty well off, and I'm not sure that anything would have guaranteed that kind of life (although it does feel like a lot of my classmates from college have those kinds of lives). But getting a Ph.D. certainly didn't do it.
(And a last note on the upward mobility narrative of the Ph.D.: I didn't go into my Ph.D. program looking for upward mobility, because I was pretty up to begin with. But I did go into the Ph.D. because it seemed to offer stability. My other area of interest was creative writing, but I went for the Ph.D. because it seemed a much more reliable and clear-cut career path. After all, in the next ten years one-third of the nation's faculty were going to die or retire, so it was a GREAT time to go to grad school! Okay, I realize no one gets told that any more – but I did. I don't resent that, and I don't regret getting my Ph.D., but it did influence me.)