Sometime in the 1990s, the ladder to success got longer for America's children.
Parents began tacking on a year or two of prekindergarten. Employers began demanding advanced degrees beyond college. Where once a dozen years of school sufficed for a good job, now youngsters are staring at a minimum 18-year stint preschool through college to launch a successful career.
And even that may not be enough.
A new report from the Census Bureau suggests that to make a really good income, today's young people may need 20 years or more in the classroom and an advanced degree. Such demands, daunting enough for students, may prove even more challenging for their parents, struggling to pay for extra schooling, and for universities, straining to provide it.
The United States may have to reexamine notions of what it takes to prepare young people for a career.
"Increasingly, a bachelor's degree is seen as a more generalist kind of degree," says Ron Bird, chief economist for the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank. "The demand for ... specially trained and highly skilled people is continuing to outstrip the supply."
The new dynamics in classroom tenure are evident at the earliest ages. Consider preschool. Once the preserve of only a few, today it's mainstream. Nearly two-thirds of 3- and 4-year-olds attend prekindergarten classes or day care with some sort of educational component, according to recently released census data.
As a result, the expectations teachers once had for first-graders are being shifted onto kindergartners. "Kindergarten is now first grade," says Dominic Gullo, professor of early-childhood education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.