The Future Is on Hold for the Tiptoe Generation

ELLEN GOODMAN

May 14, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- The parents have assembled to offer season's greetings. It is commencement season in this city that harvests students by the tens of thousands. It arrives each May with lilacs and mortarboards and departs in June with lilies and diplomas.

These parents have come from far to sit through endless ceremonies of pomp and circumstance, climaxed by doo-wop choruses of popping champagne corks. They will listen to earnest words and familiar rites of passage.

For this event their children will wear the traditional uniform of robes. They will be dressed in garments of pride.

Duly designated commencement speakers will exhort their young to, well, commence. They will tell them to begin, start fresh, change the world. At every point on the commencement compass, somebody will describe these graduates as the future, our future.

But in private these days the parents ruefully share their beliefs that a funny thing has happened on the way to the bright future. One generation's great expectations have become another generation's diminished expectations.

One parent tells me what she is giving her son for college graduation: room and board. His old room and family board.

Another tells me what she is giving her daughter: health insurance. Actually, she says, with humor, she is thinking of collecting installments from grandparents and friends the way she once collected silver from wedding guests, a place setting at a time. Is there a gift registry for college graduates? she asks ruefully.

A third parent talks about what her boy really wants. A good job in his field. She describes it wistfully, the way a gentleman's-C scholar might long for a Phi Beta Kappa key.

These parents were not raised to be so cynical about education. But they have become conscious of a graduate generation gap -- from baby boom to bust.

Two and three decades ago, they went to college to get ahead. Their children go to college to keep from falling behind.

Michael Harrington once called this the tiptoe syndrome. At a parade the second line stands on its toes to see over the heads of the first. Every line behind that has to stand on its toes just to keep the same view.

In a country more and more divided into well-off and struggling, the bottom line of this dividing line is still a college degree. But it no longer guarantees a place at the parade.

In the country at large, economists talk about the loss of consumer confidence. Here on campuses, consumers of education have also lost their confidence.

The hard cold facts of a higher education, an expanding class of graduates in a shrinking economy, are these: 1.1 million students will graduate this year.

Many, even most, will be officially overqualified for the jobs they'll have trouble finding.

Some of the parents who have come to celebrate bet the mortgage quite literally on a college education for their children. Others have children who will leave owing money.

The graduates of one generation may have worked their way through college. The graduates of the next may have to work off college. Today students go to school the only way they can. Buy credits now, pay creditors later. Suddenly, it's ''later.''

Americans born in the 1940s and 1950s used their 20s to pay for the future -- homes with children. Americans born in the 1970s may use their 20s to pay for the past -- loans with interest.

These parents are not whining, but worrying that the class of 1993 is a debtor class. Young people with a past. That's why these consumers of education have lost their confidence.

Our country's optimism was based on the belief that the next generation would do better. But for a long time that belief was in turn based on a faith in education as the great, infallible yeast.

This year the parents who will watch their young people coming into season -- commencement season -- see freshly minted adults with more to offer than offers. They worry about children who are starting . . . behind.

And when the champagne corks are popped across the country's quadrangles, they wonder how to keep the lively bubbles of a whole new generation from going flat.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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