academics and money

Somehow I wound up reading New Kid's post about house envy just before reading an article in the Chronicle about the strategies faculty are using to get by financially in areas with higher costs of living. (Unfortunately I think the article is in the subscriber-only section of the CHE -- part of some new special section called The Academic Life. I haven't looked at my print copy yet to know what that actually looks like, probably one of the folded magazine-type sections.) The Chronicle article is pretty good, though hardly a surprise to anyone who is also living in a high-cost area. Of course, they sought out extreme examples -- the faculty member who got tenure while living in her parents' home, the professor who butchers meat at the grocery story to help pay his bills. But the article overall raises some good points about the discrepancies between the cultural positions and the actual economic positions many of us inhabit.

As I've no doubt said before, I've always found Bourdieu's account of the dominated fraction of the dominant classes to be extremely compelling in pinpointing that weird dynamic that occurs in the households of academics. But I think it comes out most strongly around the issue of home ownership - - particularly as the ideology of home ownership begins to be assailed by the economic realities for many younger professionals in their 20s or 30s. It's no longer necessarily the best choice -- or even a possible choice. And yet, of course, it's an ideal that many people still aspire to.

I should specify that New Kid's points were about feeling unsettled, about transitions, and space, not necessarily financial concerns. But all of these things resonate around what she called "feeling like an adult." I'll be real clear about this: GF and I don't live in what most middle-aged folks would consider an "adult" type house. We don't have a guest room. We don't have a dining room. Our at-home lives are spent happily piled on one saggy couch. It's partly because certain bourgois markers don't matter that much to us (if they did we probably wouldn't be educators); it's also because our happy family includes three dogs; because we're introverts who'd rather make our personal space comfortable than company-presentable; and because we can't afford to live in the kind of house that grownups live in.

Who are the grownups? the Chair of my department, obviously, who not only has a Chair's salary but significant family money. He can have the whole department over for a catered holiday party during which we stroll around examining his rare books and antiques. Certain faculty married to professionals in industry. Others well into their 50s-- in my department, many people don't buy homes until their parents are deceased -- the small estates the previous generation's middle class can leave are usually suitable down payments in our real estate area. There are a few other "grownups," mostly those with children, who've chosen to live in the far away suburbs in order to purchase a home. The rest of us in the department tend to live in much more bohemian, eco-friendly, or downwardly mobile ways. (pick the label you prefer)

I'm definitely a grownup in most other areas of my life, and I don't spend much time worrying about this one. But when an old friend who's my age but definitely far ahead of me on the house scale came to visit, her shock and dismay told me quite a bit about how my life would look from the outside. Would I trade? no way. I'm pretty happy with the choices I've made. Flexible time and professional autonomy definitely trump swimming pools and new cars.