It is a common lament in the work world: Colleagues who say the only reason they put up with the slog of work, the only reason they aren’t out pursuing their dreams as a bandleader, dog breeder or novelist, is because of their kids’ hairy tuition bills.
Carol Birth, a 31-year-old single mother and teacher, dreams one day she will go back to school to get her doctorate. But not before she can provide for her son. She sometimes worries she will become “an embittered self-sacrificial old crone, only one with a college-educated kid and a semi-decent retirement fund”.
Someday, all her hard work will purchase medical-school supplies or the beginnings of a law library. “So, you keep going. You keep going because it feels selfish to stop,” she says, adding that some days she is pretty sure she would rather clean sewers than do what she is doing now.
“No,” she admits. In fact, she is satisfied with her job, but likes to complain about it. “To say you are happy with work is weird,” she says.
So many people tell you to “follow your dreams”—from commencement speakers to executive coaches—that it is easy to get the impression you aren’t. But there is scant evidence that people aren’t doing pretty much what they want, and putting the kids through school often tops the dream list.
Pouring money into children-related expenses can feel more like a sacrifice than a choice when you consider what life would be like without children. The very notion conjures jet-setting and filthy richness.
“We would be able to say, ‘Hey, let’s go to Bermuda for the weekend’,” says George Reinhart, who works for a business research organization. But would he actually go?
“No,” he says.
While people may talk about freeing themselves from work once they are done with the bulk of child-rearing costs, they usually don’t. The Families and Work Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, found that only 3% of parents over 57 years old whose youngest child is between 22 and 25 said they were very likely to leave their job in the next year. And the same paltry percentage said they were “somewhat likely” to leave their job in the next year.
So, why do people say it? Fantasies of grand departures can come in handy, says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the New York-based institute and mother of two. She used to carry around her passport on the off chance that someone would ask her to go to lunch in Brazil.
“It was a ridiculous fantasy. But I completely enjoyed my fantasy, particularly when work was crazy,” she says. Her farthest lunch destination has been midtown Manhattan.
Part of the delusion, of course, is that the bills don’t stop just because the kid graduated from college. Galinsky is still paying off the second mortgage she took out for her son’s college 12 years after he graduated.
Often, one astronomical cost merely is replaced by others that may not have the same ring of nobility as college costs but are still necessary: “Pensions, 401(k)s and health insurance are the things that are more likely to tie down my professional peers, especially health insurance,” says Tom Archer, a strategy and operations consultant.
“People are as happy as they were 20 years ago,” says Natalie J. Allen, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Western Ontario. That is why when people say they are staying on the job only for the benefit of the kids, she says, “I’m not convinced that people mean it.”
According to a Gallup Poll, 90% of Americans are at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs, and 75% say they are satisfied with their pay. Two-thirds would take the same job again “without hesitation”.
Of course, there are tuition-indentured parents who make huge career sacrifices and simply punch the clock. Steven Shore, a financial analyst, has witnessed one organization’s leader languish until the boss finishes paying off the kids’ school. The boss is not the only one looking forward to his last college payment, and thus his retirement. “I’m also hoping there are no adolescent factors that delay the cycle being completed,” says Shore.
But dreams have a way of shifting from adventure to stability. David Eddy, a software programmer and father of a high-school junior, used to have an entrepreneurial dream with two high-tech start-ups—start-ups, he says, “that didn’t” because he hadn’t fully explored the markets. Now, he is dreaming of the predictability of a cubicle job that will help with looming tuition expenses. “Most dreams,” he says, “aren’t market researched.”
Some have managed to find a way to realize their dreams, despite the heady costs of school. Beverley Tucker, a banker in New York and Cincinnati, had no farming of any kind in his background. But that didn’t stop him from buying a cattle farm in South Dakota 11 years ago, when his youngest son was almost done with college.
After overcoming some financial obstacles, Tucker has moved far away from office life. “It never occurred to me that it would work out this well,” he says.
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