Intergenerational transmission of Advantage and Disadvantage
Advantage, and disadvantage, both transmit intergenerationally.
I write this newsletter once every month or so. It features my reflections on the deployment of creativity to making the world’s economic systems (and by extension social and to some extent political systems) more inclusive and, therefore, fairer. That sounds like a tall order – and it is!
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I had the privilege of a proud father attending my daughter’s graduation from Princeton these past days. What a joyous celebration! Just to have a physical convocation ceremony with all the uncertainties around Covid was relief enough. Having the renowned pageantry and pomp of this particular university was icing on the cake.
I found myself reliving memories of my own delightful experiences as an undergraduate at the same university more than three decades ago. My kids remind me that, as hard-working as they are, their privileged background has surely contributed to their benefiting from such an education.
Serendipitously, on the five-hour drive over from our Boston area home to the New Jersey campus, I heard an audio-essay on public radio about the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Poor people might, for example, borrow to make ends meet, and fall into a debt-laden poverty trap that condemns the next generation to a subsistence existence. Or poverty might affect nutrition, and through that mechanism the ability of the next generation to live up to their capabilities.
The sobering radio-essay merged into the slipstream of my consciousness a few days after the happy graduation as I write this short post. Advantage, and disadvantage, both transmit intergenerationally.
There’s more. In the news are the horrors of Russia’s assault on Ukraine – Bucha, Mariupol – every day for these past few months. What happens to the involuntary migrants streaming across Eastern Europe now? Much scholarship points out that the trauma visited upon involuntary migrants often transmits to subsequent generations. A recent five-year study of the 1947 Partition of British India has just concluded at Harvard’s Mittal Institute under the leadership of the medical doctor and human rights activist Dr Jennifer Leaning. The research team encountered ample evidence that those who were forced to flee their homes (from either side to the other of what are now the borders between India and Pakistan), amidst the unspeakable butchery that followed the British colonial withdrawal from the Indian subcontinent, sometimes unwittingly transmitted the effects of those experiences to their progeny.
So, we have intergenerational transmission of advantage, poverty, trauma, and so on. It just makes one realize that, left to their own proverbial devices, societies will exhibit path-dependence. That’s a form of hysteresis, the situation that arises when the current state and evolution of a system depends on its history.
In turn, this means that the current widespread angst about inequality will worsen absent several serious efforts to inter-generationally level the so-called playing field.
I ask myself, what can I do? As an academic, I can point to conventional mechanisms that are adjudicated in various societies’ courts of law and public opinion, about using so-called estate taxes or various forms of affirmative action, to give everyone in the next generation a more equal chance at personal advancement. But these are not directly in my control.
As an individual educator-entrepreneur, if you will, I thought I could do more. Aspire Institute, a United States 501c3 charity that some colleagues and I have been running out of Cambridge, Massachusetts since 2017, now serves first-generation learners from over 100 countries, providing them entirely free access to world-class educational content and educators that they would not otherwise know how to get to or be able to access for a medley of reasons. These are disadvantaged youth from rural areas across five continents, those dislocated through conflict (think Ukraine today or Syria recently), or long-running strife (parts of central Africa), or environmental degradation (parts of biodiverse Latin America or Southeast Asia), even first-in-family-to-college youth in the US. Aspire Institute’s plug-and-play technology-enabled platform is enabling a dramatic scaling month-by-month, reaching tens of thousands of learners, though there is a very long way to go.
The journey, and smiles on the face of folks, make it worth it though!
Its such a privilege to be part of the program that is serving so many of first generation learners. Thank you for all you do. And you are right, everything is being transmitted intergenerationally. The good and the bad equally. Having been fortunate to receive education, contrary to my parents who did not even get an opportunity to graduate high school, it is both a responsibility and honour to lead young generation and increase access to opportunities.