What I actually took away was that people in those days could quit, drop out, or do any damned thing they felt like doing, and there would be someone or something to pick them up afterwards: plentiful jobs, more jobs than there were applicants, seemingly; a network that would allow the main character, with just a phone call from one of her parents, to go to Europe and work as a translator in Italy; and a generous system of social service benefits that wouldn't let them fall into poverty. They could change the world--or at least the upper-middle-class white women in the book could--because the world was going to support them financially no matter what they did. I realize that that's probably not true, but it has a truthiness to it and seems true, given what Davidson describes.
I don't think I really envy that generation, but I did think about it when I read Anne Trubek's "Giving Up Tenure? Who Does That?" over at the Chronicle. Trubek's article is cheerful and upbeat, and she gives a lot of examples of people who've given up tenure and are the happier for it.
Trubek is right: people should be able to give up tenure and do something else, if they want to. I love my job and wouldn't quit, but I don't get the "Academia is a Holy Calling" idea where you're a failure if you want to go into another line of work--or, more self-righteously still, owe it to all those not hired to stick it out even if you're miserable, as one of the commenters suggested. A tenure-track job is work, not a life.
And it's an increasingly unattainable one, given the job market, as William Pannapacker and others, including the Slate columnist, have pointed out. There's a prevailing idea or myth in
My point, I guess, is that giving people grief for quitting tenure, like giving them grief for taking a non-academic job, is head-shakingly misguided. This isn't Sara Davidson's 1960s, when safety nets abounded. People who take those risks ought to be applauded for their courage, not excoriated for Abandoning the Sacred Banner of Academe.
[Updated to add: I just read Historiann's post, which presents the other, darker side of the 1960s coin.]
*See William Pannapacker's comment in the comments section.
[Updated to add: And Kathleen Fitzpatrick didn't quit for good, despite all the publicity in Trubek's article. She's now a tenured professor at Michigan State after her stint at the MLA. That doesn't invalidate her thoughts about the terror of giving up tenure, of course.]