When some parents look into the future and see widespread uncertainty, they want to raise their children to be flexible, adaptable, and resilient. But in doing so, are they readying children for a brave new world of possibility, or lowering their expectations about commitment?

 We don’t know what life is going to bring our children, says Stanley, a white divorced man in his 40s, laid off from several jobs, who wished fervently for his daughter that “no matter what comes, that she has the ability to deal with it.” Stanley is one of 80 parents whom, in research for my recent book, I interviewed about their job insecurity and their views on the sort of world for which they thought they were preparing their children.1 I learned that where we stand in America’s starkly unequal social landscape shapes our view of the kind of world our children will face, and what will help them in the future.

Parents’ experience at work has long informed childrearing. During the agrarian centuries, parenting was about transmitting known skills, and thus the most crucial child attribute was obedience.

But in the industrial economy of the twentieth century, styles of parenting by the masses seemed to diverge. Researchers in the 1950s found that social class was linked to the values parents held in their childrearing, with middle-class parents valuing and encouraging their children’s autonomy and self-direction, as befitting their occupational needs, while working-class parents expected obedience and conformity. More recently, thanks to University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau, we know that affluent parents teach entitlement through the customization of their children’s experience and the endless solicitation of their views. Less advantaged parents, meanwhile, imbue their children with a sense of constraint, given a world filled with what they experience as powerful authorities and impervious institutions.

Inequality extends to how parents respond to the new economy. In the new ways of organizing work, people expect job insecurity. But the impact of the new precariousness is radically different for the top and the bottom of our economy. Workers with more education are less likely to lose their jobs than those with less education, and when they do lose their jobs, they are less likely to endure a pay cut when they get a new one. Insecurity feels more like flexibility among advantaged workers, and more like abandonment among low-income or marginalized workers.

These differences find their way into what we might consider today’s “insecurity parenting.” Both groups say they want their children to be flexible, but not all flexibility is the same. Affluent parents want their children to be able to take advantage of all the opportunities that may come their way. “We wanted for them to grow up with the flexibility of being able to go somewhere, take a look around and say, ‘This is what I need to do to fit in here’,” said Anita, a white mother of three. “I just wanted them to be able to have the opportunity to do what you wanted to do, [so they know] you can go anywhere you want, do anything you want.”

Advantaged parents are proud when their children demonstrate that they can handle, even enjoy, the adaptability they think the work world demands. Rochelle’s husband had taken their son Bobby to Japan on a recent business trip. “Chuck [her husband] did not hold his hand, he put him at a table with people who did not speak very good English, I mean he did not hold his hand at all,” she recalled. “And he [Bobby] loved it.”

Low-income workers also talk about flexibility for their children both at work and at home, but the way they talk about it suggests a very different world, with very different prospects for their children. For them, it seems, flexibility is less a means of preparing children to vault into opportunity, than it is a kind of armor children can don against imminent disaster.

“As I’ve explained to her, there’s a good possibility by the time she’s 40 and she has a full-time job, they’re going to lay her off and hire somebody much younger for a lot lower salary,” said Clark, a white man in his 50s who has had that experience himself several times. “I’m trying to prepare [her] for a very—the very difficult world that she’s going to live in. Too few jobs and too many people. I see it coming. I think it’s going to get worse and worse and worse.”

Katherine, who had been laid off more than once, was working on not taking it personally. About her children, she said: “I would rather they be more adaptable, because you never know what is going to happen in life, where it’s going to throw you for a loop. Anything can happen.”

Less advantaged parents appeared to be preparing their children for the potential for calamity in their home lives as well. Parents of girls, in particular, wanted to drive home the message that their daughters were ultimately going to have to take care of themselves.

“I hope that they all are able to support themselves and able to be independent, so they can not have to depend on anyone else,” said Lena, a divorced white woman who supported her three girls as a health para-professional. “It’s nice to know somebody’s there if you need them, but it’s better for yourself in your mind and body if you know you can do it on your own.”

Of course, these differences simply reflect everyday realities: if you experience precariousness as a predictable traumatic disruption, you are going to want to prepare your children for the certainty of painful uncertainty.

But insecurity parenting has three potential effects that warrant our notice. First, it is possible that it helps at least partially to create the futures that children inherit, by equipping some with take-charge optimism and others with head-down wariness. Second, it directs our attention to how individuals might better cope with a precariousness presumed to be inescapable, and thus lowers our standards for the kind of commitments we might expect from each other at work and at home. Finally, it serves to distract us from how society might tackle the broader causes of widespread insecurity, such as the downsizing and layoffs that even economists now regard as hardly inevitable.

Of course, parents look at what is happening at work and strive for their children’s resilience, but perhaps we should be aiming our response at the social forces that demand their adaptability in the first place.

  1. Stanley’s name and those of others in this essay have been changed to protect their confidentiality.