I enjoyed reading Andrew’s sage suggestions for how to live frugally to reach financial security, but then I read Sterling’s essay highlighting the plight of food-insecure students: what a stark contrast.

Two of Andrew’s key messages are “save” and “invest” – sound advice, but increasingly, advice that even the children of solidly middle-class families are finding impossible to follow.

Consider the cost of higher education. When I was a student in the 1980s, the annual tuition fees for a California resident student at UC Berkeley totaled $1000. Now, tuition at Berkeley is $15,000 per year; for comparison, the inflation-adjusted price I paid in 1980 is $3000. Like Andrew, I’m frugal, and by living frugally I was able to cover my tuition and residence costs through summer and part-time jobs without needing to take out any loans.

I don’t know anyone in my sons’ 20-something peer groups (in the US or UK) who isn’t accruing debts, even at state-supported universities. Furthermore, as Sterling points out, even with loans students find it difficult to eat properly.

Difficult. To. Eat. Properly.

Graduating with debt isn’t a great way to start one’s adult life. And then there are other factors: increasing levels of un- and underemployment even for those with good degrees, rising costs of housing especially in regions where jobs can be found, and healthcare’s rising costs and declining accessibility. Inflation-adjusted wages are flat or decreasing, while living costs keep going up, making it more and more improbable that someone can pay off their student loans AND save for retirement.  Increases in the age at which pensions can be claimed make it harder for those new to the job market to find work, and further diminish the prospect of a financially-viable retirement. Climate change and changing patterns of migration will add even more uncertainty to the future.

It's time to recognize that we’re past the peak of security and stability. Sure, the privileged and the lucky will be ok, but many of those embarking on their careers won’t ever reach the goal of a paid-off house and a healthy retirement fund, no matter how carefully they manage their finances.

The prospect of the next generation being worse off than the current one is deeply depressing. Rather than the pleasure of watching our mentees take wing and soar, we face the bleakness of seeing them struggle to get by.

What can we (those who are more secure) do to support those who are following us?

Empathy and understanding are important. Please don’t assume that students who miss class or turn in assignments late are lazy. Some may be, but I bet most are juggling too many demands with too few resources. As Sterling says, know where to suggest they go for additional support.

Be flexible. If you have students or postdocs raising children or supporting extended family, recognize that for most people the single-worker family is a relic of the past, and that familial obligations are often unplanned.

Be sincere. If you can, be generous with your time and money. As university enrollments swell, more and more of the students are the first in their families in higher education, so show compassion if they have naïve questions or stumble.  

Listen. You can support early-career scientists by your presence, and by hearing, acknowledging and acting on their concerns. Plantae and Twitter are open, informal platforms that let scientists connect in a non-threatening, non-hierarchical space. Many early-career scientists are using Plantae as a platform to share their writing, ask questions, or seek help. It means so much to know that their work has been viewed and to have their questions answered. At conferences, make an effort to chat with early-career scientists at their posters and during breaks; remember, they are more timid about initiating conversations than you are.

And finally, if possible, support the important work that Rob describes that is being coordinated through ASPB, a professional society for plant scientists. ASPB provide opportunities such as travel grants and the Ambassador program, as well as undergraduate research fellowships, Plantae Fellows Program, Conviron Scholars program, etc. ASPB journals are developing new programs focused on helping early-career scientists gain crucial professional experiences and skills, and programs such as the First Author Profiles that celebrate their achievements. If you review for ASPB journals you’ll earn Journal Miles, which you can use to provide students or postdocs with ASPB memberships, so that they can fully engage with the plant science community.

We face myriad and complex challenges. Things will probably get worse. Supporting the future generation of scientists has never been more important.