Generational Mobility

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The great immigrant experience is often told in terms of the plucky Irishman or Slav who came over on a crowded boat, got through Ellis Island, and managed to raise his family here in the land of the free. And while those stories are fascinating and plentiful, they’re also partial, because one of the reasons those people came was because they wanted better lives for their kids as well. The Staten Island bricklayer worked in the mud and the cold for pennies an hour, but his son became a cop; the cop’s son became a lawyer; the lawyer’s son became a partner in a big law firm and sent his son to Yale to become something no one could imagine. The waitress’ daughter became a hairdresser; the hairdresser’s daughter became a teacher; the teacher’s daughter became an engineer and sent her daughter on to Stanford to become something no one could imagine.

Cultural capital, like financial capital, accumulates over generations. Samuel P. Bush was a preacher’s son who became a steel manufacturing magnate; his son Prescott Bush was a financier involved in government military contract regulation; Prescott’s son George and his grandson George both became U.S. Presidents. In a very real way, the George W. Bush presidency was the tree that grew from the acorn of the blacksmith Timothy Bush’s decision to send his son Obadiah to school to became a schoolmaster. The 43rd presidency was born five generations back, in a village near Buffalo, at the turn of the 19th century.

Tatos Kardashian’s parents came from Turkey as religious emigrees. Tatos (later Americanized to Tom) started a garbage disposal business in the flourishing, booming Los Angeles basin. His son Arthur owned a vast meat packing business. Arthur’s son Robert became an attorney, who served as part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team. And Robert’s kids are now everywhere, Kourtney and Kim and Khloe (and Rob, too, I suppose). Reality television stardom was launched by a trash collector a hundred years earlier.

It takes a special kind of imagination to believe that one’s own prospects might be limited but safe enough to give one’s sons and daughters something larger. We talk easily about social class mobility, but on the scale of the individual, that’s really pretty rare. I think it happens far more often on a cross-generational level, descendants climbing the steps rather than leaping up the bluffs all at once. Those that do make the journey in a single generation are often, like all climbers ascending too quickly, afflicted by disorientation, vertigo, nausea, unexplained but persistent aches.