With all the ways the rich and famous have to get themselves and their progeny ahead in this world, why would wealthy parents commit fraud?
Last week, thirty-three parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin, were indicted for using bribes and test cheating to gain admission for their children to prestigious universities. Even by snowplow standards — a parenting style in which parents obsessively remove barriers to their kids’ success — their alleged actions are extreme.
To shed some light on what might make a parent desperate enough to engage in this kind of criminal activity, I turned to Malcolm Harris’s newly published Kids These Days, Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Harris presents a socio-economic analysis of the external forces that have shaped our children over the past 40 years, including the 2008 financial crisis, late capitalism and technology that makes us available 24/7. He argues that the drastic changes in the nature of American childhood are profoundly affecting society — and making Millennials and their parents highly anxious about the future.
Millennials’ Hyper-Competitive World
Harris says despite the lazy and narcissistic stereotype, Millennials on the whole are actually hard-working and highly educated. ‘…Students are doing historically anomalous amounts of homework and competition for desirable college slots is stiffer,’ writes Harris. The number of applicants to four-year colleges and universities has doubled since the early 70s, yet the number of available slots has changed little. The high-achieving pool of students has also become much more crowded: between 1984 and 2012, the number of high school students taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses increased a whopping 921 percent.
‘American kids spend more time on school work than ever before, even though their skills with new technology make performance of academic tasks like research and word processing much more efficient’ says Harris. ‘A scholastic arms race has pitted adolescents against each other from a young age.’
Post-graduation, more competition and uncertainty awaits Millennials, who have come of age in a time of increasing economic inequality and wage stagnation. This generation is less financiallywell-off than their parents and grandparents when they were the same age.
‘Preparing young people for the 21st century labor market is a high-stakes rat race,’ writes Harris. ‘It’s harder to compete for a good job, the bad jobs you can hope to fall back on are worse than they used to be and both good and bad jobs are less secure. The intense anxiety that has overcome American childhood flows from a reasonable fear of un-, under- and just plain lousy employment.’
Harris paints a bleak financial picture over which parents have little control. Given what’s a stake, I can understand how parents could get carried away trying to eliminate risk and give their children as many advantages as possible.
‘It’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances,’ he writes. ‘Entire industries have sprung up to prey on this anxiety from Baby Einstein to test prep academies.’
Helicopter Parents to the Rescue
Having raised a Millennial, I’m familiar with the pressure on parents to make the right choices and to take full advantage of any and all opportunities for their children. It was us Baby Boomer mothers that ushered in over-structured days, pre-arranged playdates and an intense focus on academic goals, creating the moniker ‘helicopter parent.’ Not to be outdone, today’s parents spend more money on child rearing than any previous generation.
I exposed my daughter Lauren to her fair share of ‘enrichment’ activities, from music and ballet to art and gymnastics. As for the latter, she announced after her first class that the balance beam, vault and tumbling weren’t for her. ‘Too many rules,’ she said. That self-awareness would serve Lauren well during her school years. When she announced that she intended to take only half her high school classes AP rather than the full load of advanced coursework as many of her peers were doing, I went down the rabbit-hole with worry. ‘What if she doesn’t get into a good school? What if she doesn’t get a good job? What if she can’t support herself?’
At the same time, I saw the logic in Lauren’s thinking. ‘Why would I take an advanced class in a subject I don’t like and I’m not good at?” she reasoned. I admired her ability to push back against over-scheduling and crushing academic loads. And all the reasons I could think of for her to take harder coursework than she could handle just rang hollow: ‘Because it’s good to work hard… Because all those APs on your transcript will look great.’
I’m also a big believer in work-life balance and it’s crazy to me that our children experience the exact opposite during their formative school years. Harris concurs: ‘‘The whole school culture is built around hyper-competition, from first period, to extracurricular activities, to homework, to the video games kids play when they have a minute of downtime.’
In the end I still worried about Lauren’s final transcript — because that’s what parents do — but she ultimately made the choices that were best for her. (She got into a good school.)
Surviving in a Take-No-Chances World
I believe wanting your child to succeed comes from a loving place, whether you’re wealthy, famous or struggling to get by. But that genuine desire can be perverted a hyper-competitive culture that focuses on the exceptional. It takes some fortitude to opt out. As parents we have to work hard to keep our own fears, anxiety and egos in check.
When you live in a take-no-chances kind of world, letting your foot off the gas pedal can feel awfully uncomfortable. In our household, we often repeat the phrase (borrowed from Warren Buffett) to ease anxiety about the future: ‘Do what you can do then let go of outcomes.’ The ultimate challenge is to find that line between being supportive and doing too much for our kids — so they can get on with the work of learning how to survive and prosper in the 21st century. If the current economic and cultural trends continue as Harris predicts, it’s going to be up to the Millennials to turn this ship around — and they’re going to need all the support the rest of us can muster.
As for Felicity, Lori and the other individuals charged in the admissions scandal, it remains to be seen how their future will pan out. But I know one thing for sure: it’s tough being a Millennial. And it ain’t easy parenting one either.