Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What does archaeology have to do with health care reform?

By Rosemary Joyce

That's what I was left wondering when my periodic browsing of press coverage of my discipline brought me to an online story posted by San Jose Mercury News business editor Drew Voros, under the headline "Health care reform can slow down aging process".

Written as a dialogue between a father and son, the column presents the picture of an adult child unwilling to settle down and get a full-time job, with benefits. The punchline comes somewhere in the middle:

SON: Health insurance? That's not [a] problem with President Obama's health care reform. Now dependents aged 26 and under can stay on their parents' health insurance. And if anything does ever happen to me like disease or dismemberment, health insurance companies cannot deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.

The provision for extending coverage to adult children, according to news reports, has actually "become one of Obama's biggest applause lines when he campaigns to promote the new law around the country". Attempting to counter this appealing prospect, the argument that this provision will encourage adult children to defer entering the job market has been advanced by conservative bloggers.

A 2007 article based on research sponsored by the Pew Research Center argued that "adults who are just setting out on their own are tough to cover, because they tend to be in low-paying jobs that they don't hold on to very long, making it difficult for them to buy employer-based health insurance." Pew Center research, like subsequent studies, shows that the cost of insuring these young adults on their parents' policies is relatively low, while providing a kind of security that is critical for most people's sense of well-being. No wonder this is a popular policy.

Trying to shift the storyline from the popular one of extending support to young adults newly employed or seeking work, to scorn for adult children unwilling to take on adult responsibilities, would seem to be an uphill battle. And that is where archaeology comes into Voros' imagined dialogue between Father and Son.

What has distracted Son from joining the world of full-time jobs with real benefits?

TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD SON: Hi Dad, I've got some great news. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has come up at school I want to talk to you about.

SON: Hold on, just hear me out. I have been asked to go on an archaeological dig in Peru for nine months through the university. I applied for a grant that pays for everything including classes when I get back.

SON: I can get a masters in archaeology by doing two semesters of classes, a thesis along with the field work.

Reading this exchange-- with its implication that spending close to two years ("more like eighteen months", Son says) engaged in archaeology is extended childhood-- while at the 75th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology created great cognitive dissonance. Thousands of archaeologists are here, and all of us work in what the character Father calls "the real world", not "the buried world" he accuses Son of wanting to stay in. Even the pop culture icon of archaeology, Indiana Jones, is a hard-working university professor when not traveling the globe in search of treasures for his university's museum.

But I have to conclude that somehow, archaeology serves to dramatize the least practical career choice a Father could imagine for his Son. And I can only wish, with Son, that his Father could be "a little more enthused" about the extension of health care coverage on parental policies to adult children.

And if greater security in health care coverage lets some young adults imagine taking intellectual risks, so much the better. As Son says to his Father:

SON: And you are missing my point. I will never have a chance to do this. The job market is awful, you say that all the time. I could be looking for a job for the next nine months and not find one. Then what would I have gained rather than going to Peru? There's more risk not going than going.