The Straits Times
Published on Jun 01, 2013
Affluent, two-career families are pulling away from the pack
By Alison Wolf
IN THE developed world, where middle incomes are stagnant, today's race goes to the superfamily. It's a throwback in many ways - tight-knit, nuclear, husband- wife-and-kids - but with a twist: two successful, highly educated, well-paid parents. And it's a key reason why the top section of society is pulling away from the rest.
It all began in the 1970s, when educated women penetrated every part of the professional labour market. They also started to take less and less time out of work when they had children, and began to earn serious money.
Across the rich countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the group of leading developed economies, women now hold half of the "Class I" professional and managerial jobs.
These are the jobs of the top sixth of society by income: the jobs of the elite.
This can be hard to square with the flow of stories about unequal pay for women. But highly educated women now have work lives that are very like those of highly educated men, and increasingly different from other women's.
People at the top marry among themselves.
Of course, people have always tended to marry their own kind, a process known as assortative mating. But this behaviour has increased.
Partly, this is because women are now more educated. In the past, male doctors could not expect to marry female doctors, as hardly any existed. So they married nurses. But that isn't the whole story. Increases in assortative mating go well beyond what you would expect statistically from the rise in female graduation rates.
Women often suspect that men prefer to marry women much less intelligent than themselves. If that were true, they could certainly have gone on doing so - but they haven't. They want to marry women like them.
But it isn't just assortative mating that marks off the elite. Once married, professionals with college degrees are much more likely to stay that way. Among the well-off, intact marriages are still the norm.
It's easy to miss this widening gap between elite marriage patterns and those of everybody else. The media reports the breakups of the rich and famous. And we also, most of us, know couples where one would love to marry and the other won't.
Nonetheless, the statistics are clear.
The majority of elite men marry, and marry women very like themselves. Graduate professionals have divorce rates that are much lower than those of other groups.
Across the developed world, graduate fathers are overwhelmingly likely to be married to the mothers of their children at the time their children are born. This remains true in societies marked by soaring rates of illegitimacy.
In the European Union as a whole, more than a third of all births in 2009 were to unmarried women. In the United States, the overall figure is about 40 per cent. But less than 5 per cent of births to white American graduate mothers were extramarital in 1965 and that figure's unchanged.
Today, Western societies boast a phalanx of affluent, graduate two-career families, determined to advance the interests of their children. And while elite families don't love their children any more or less than anyone else, their increasingly distinctive family lives put them at a huge advantage.
As recently as the late 1970s, having a first child after the age of 30 was highly unusual for women of any class. For the bulk of society, it still is. But live among today's graduate classes and you might get the impression that no one even contemplates pregnancy until 30 looms. In Britain and France, the proportion of graduates having a baby before 30 has halved in the last few decades.
By the time elite families have children, they are a good deal richer than other parents. These are, for the most part, families headed by two adults already well into their careers. And most will avoid the financial fallout of a split.
The last quarter-century has been a period of growing inequality in many developed countries. After the Great Compression of the mid-20th century, inequality has grown again, most markedly in the US.
The ones we notice are the super-rich. We are shocked by million-dollar bonuses. But it's not just the 1 per cent who are cleaning up. People in the top 15 per cent, those in jobs that today bring in upwards of US$70,000 (S$88,800), have been doing pretty nicely too.
Inequality among men has grown. But inequality among women has been growing fast - and on many measures even faster. The number of women with seriously large incomes has exploded; gender gaps have vanished among young professionals.
The much-cited male-female gap in average pay exists because so many women are in low-paid jobs - care, retail and cleaning - often work part-time, and often drop out of work for years when their children are young.
Child-care costs are extremely high in many countries but, for professionals, paying them is conceivable. Two-career families are the main users of formal child care. Having money to start with makes it easier to stay in well-paid employment, and having money makes it easier to help your children.
The tendency for children born into the top fifth of the income scale in the developed world to still be in the top fifth as adults is high, and surprisingly uniform. At this level it's the same, generation to generation, in Denmark as in the US. Elite families are doing a good job of keeping their children rich.
Yet these parents are also very anxious, and rightly so. Competition is international. Formal education is ever more important as a gateway to the sunny uplands. Surveying the the world, families are not sure if anything will be enough.
In the late 20th century, university education exploded across the globe. A degree brings large benefits in terms of earnings and opportunities.
However, in key respects, education is a positional good, meaning that its value lies partly in how it is perceived by others, and there lies the root of professional parents' angst.
It is not just about gaining a skill, as it is when you learn to drive. It is just as much about telling the world, through your educational success, whether you are better than other people, or worse. It is about competing. And the best way to signal your quality is to get a degree from a top brand like Harvard or Oxford.
As the world globalises, as English becomes ever more dominant as a global language but wealth moves East, more and more families have the resources to back their children's futures. And they are mostly in a state of stress. The very scope of higher education on offer creates a winner- take-all situation.
This makes families everywhere obsessed with education. Out-of-school tutoring is booming worldwide; what was once seen as a Japanese quirk is now a big growth industry in Britain.
But the families that can really spend on education are the elite, those whose incomes let them buy the most expensive commodity of all - other people's time.
International boarding schools and top British public schools cost upwards of US$46,000 a year, and this can stretch most families' finances.
The strains are particularly apparent among the independent schools of the big cities, where so many two-career families live. In New York, the competition to get one's children into the right (private) nursery leading to the right (private) kindergarten, and on through to high school and a top university, leaves parents exhausted and desperate.
All this means that family income today has a stronger influence on whether you go to university than it did a few decades ago. That is because it is now more or less automatic that a child from a professional family gets a degree; lower down the income scale, it is still only the most academically inclined. And of course it's not just whether you go to university, it is also where.
So what does the future hold for this family-driven society of ours? More of the same.
When British sociologist Michael Young wrote The Rise Of The Meritocracy, he was not just coining a new word, but writing a satire. The book ends with revolution, as the unselected rise up against a state run along strictly meritocratic lines. Any serious change in today's university entry patterns, or any serious attack on top schools, would also require a revolution. But no government can rule against its elites for more than a short time. And all the trends that are drawing today's superfamilies away from the pack look set to continue into the future.
There is, however, one counterweight. Many high-earning professionals don't have children, and elite families are mostly small. Top people don't have many children, in part because rearing elite children is a very expensive affair. So even with assortative marriage, even with intensive parenting, and all the right education, there will, still, be some room at the top. But only some.
The writer is an economist and professor of public-sector management at King's College London. Her latest book is The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society.
This article is an adaptation of a piece that originally appeared in Prospect magazine.
Copyright © 2013 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.
THE ELITE WORLD
- The superfamily is tight-knit, nuclear, husband-wife-and-kids but with a twist: two highly educated, well-paid parents.
- The majority of elite men marry, and marry women very like themselves.
- Graduate professionals have divorce rates that are much lower than those of other groups.