Dondena Interviews

Frank Furstenberg, whose academic home is officially the University of Pennsylvania but who is as often found elsewhere in the world, has landed  at the Dondena Centre for the last five years for a semester of collaborating, teaching, and mentoring. The godfather of life course sociology, Furstenberg first made a name for himself studying African American teenage mothers. Now in his sixth decade as a working sociologist, Dondena’s honorary nonno has for the last time packed up his disintegrating boxes of musty books and disheveled papers to see if he can’t shed light on aging societies in Asia.


So. You’re kinda the Dondena Darling.

(chuckles) We’ve had a five-year run and it’s been fabulous . And I tell you, I’ve enjoyed this as much as I could imagine.


What do you like about it? The young people? The different people checking in?

I love being surrounded by young people. And I love the potential collaborations that can be sparked. I’m working on something with Sissi [Nicoletta Balbo], I’m working  on something with Giulia [Ferrari]. Ross [Macmillan] and I are doing something. It’s very appealing. I’m just sitting here working on a paper that Agnase [Vitali] and Arnie [Aassve] and I did. Besides the teaching, which I’ve enjoyed tremendously, I think the research collaborations are just wonderful. Now, that could happen anywhere, and it does, but here we have a kind of head-start. People know sort of what to do and there’s a convergence of interests and family demography, there’s spots in Europe where it’s very strong. This is certainly one of them.


What do you think about Bocconi students. Dondena Director Ross Macmillan, who is relatively new to Bocconi, talks about them being extremely high caliber.

I think they’re excellent.


Even the undergrads, he says.

That’s right. It’s very much equivalent to the students I find at Penn. They’re nice, they’re generally hard-working. Many of them are very hard working. They’re pretty serious. They’re young, I think. But maybe no younger than the United States, it’s a little hard to make that judgment. I think it’s a very good environment for this kind of collaboration.


You have a new book out with advice about how to survive a career in academia. In a broad sense, what would you like to see people doing more of in their academic careers? I mean, when you look at everyone you’ve seen over these many years, are there certain things that you think ‘Gosh, no one seems to be doing X’?

I think people ought to spend a little more time trying to figure out the next step. They get a little absorbed and perhaps overwhelmed by the current step that they’re in. I’d like to get people to be a little more strategic in the way that they think about their academic career. Some students are entering graduate school with very little knowledge of how the pipeline works. I think that knowledge both leads to better decisions, but also it may eliminate some of the inefficiencies that occur in graduate education, where people really are not well-suited to going on in graduate school, but by dint of the fact that they’ve done well as an undergraduate they’re encouraged or at least supported in that decision. But they don’t know quite what they’re getting into. You could say, ‘Well, if they really know what they’re getting into maybe they wouldn’t do it.’ That is a possibility. But I think it’s better to be forewarned.


Because they really are coming into a saturated market.

In Italy. In the U.S., the market is still pretty good. Very good, I would say. And it’s not going to get a lot worse in the U.S. In Italy, it’s hard to see immediately how it’s going to get better. And I think Italy really has  a serious problem—whatever our problems are in the U.S., the inefficiencies of education—they’re much greater in Italy. And they entice highly qualified people into academic careers, but they really don’t have the opportunity structure for these people to move into. I think that many of them over time will be, if not causalities, that may be too strong a word, but they’re certainly going to suffer because of the anemic marketplace. And the U.S., I think offers at this point a better alternative. Probably China does, too.


Would you still encourage people to go into a career in academia?

Oh yes. Definitely. If they’re talented I would encourage them.


Really? Even given what the tenure process does to people?

I think that the tenure process is a rough process, but so is the process in medicine, law, even business, getting capital to start something or working in a large organization where you hate it. In academia, the rewards of success are very high. Not the financial ones. But I think for talented people, I mean people who are high achievers and have the right temperament and go to the right place, most of them will succeed. The vast majority of people coming out of the top 25 departments—certainly the top 10—will succeed in varying degrees. When you get further down and go to less well-endowed institutions, people are accumulating a lot of debt and the payoff could be questionable. You have to play the game better than you used to, and people are learning to play the game better than they used to. I mean, the undergraduates are much better prepared when they enter graduate school than 30 or 40 years ago, by a long shot.


Let’s switch gears for a moment and talk about your research. What are you working on these days? Are you in any sort of retirement mode when it comes to research?

Not really. I don’t do as much as I did 20 years ago. But I probably have five or six ongoing collaborations in projects related to family demography. My main interest right now, which has been emerging in the last couple of years since I entered this MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society is to look at how intergenerational transfers might change as society ages and becomes more economically unequal and more diverse in terms of family form. I’m more interested in money and property than I am emotional support and time, but I’m interested in all of those features of intergenerational exchange. I don’t think I’ll write a book on that, but I’m working on some papers. So that has led me to Asia. Asia seems to be the hottest laboratory for studying family change, and this year I got a Fulbright that will last for five years, called a Senior Fulbright Specialist, so I can have resources to visit these societies. I hope to write conceptual papers as well as empirical papers on how things are playing out. This year we put out a special issue of  The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Series on the transition to adulthood in Asia, but I’m now working with someone on doing a similar volume on intergenerational relations in aging societies. Asia is a wonderful example of that.


What’s on your itinerary then?

Probably more travel to Asia is in my future, I hope! I’ll keep coming back from time to time to Europe. But I like to help build infrastructure, too. I had one of these Fulbright things about 10 years ago and I worked in Latin America and tried to build infrastructure to try to collect common data and had some success. I’ll probably try to work on that in Asia as well. They don’t have the equivalent of the country-level datasets and cross-national datasets that Europe has been building and that the U.S. and Europe have in common, so helping more of that to happen in Asia is a good thing. And I like the food. I won’t go anywhere I don’t like the food.


Can we say how old you are Frank?



So you’ll be 78 and still going to Asia?

I hope! I would hope, I would hope! I certainly intend to keep working as long as it’s fun and I’m moderately good at it. And when I’m not moderately good at it, I’ll try to be as helpful as I can to people in skill development or something of that sort. But I think I’ve got another five years or so in me.


To learn more about Frank Furstenberg, click here. For more on the Dondena Seminar Series, click here.
















Last updated 06 February 2014 - 12:08:54