In 1997, a few months into my first year at university, I was seized by the conviction that I had made a terrible mistake. I had gone to study engineering at the giant state university in my hometown, one of the many enormous, sturdy, low-cost public universities that helped make America’s middle class the largest, best-educated and richest in the world in the 20th century. I thought I should have done better. In exchanging emails with friends on other, more exclusive campuses I started to get the feeling that I had missed the exit onto the fast track, that at that early stage of adult life I had already doomed myself to anonymous mediocrity.
I don’t have too many regrets about my college education now. I’m an economics writer at The Economist and an author; my alma mater helped prepare me for the career. Yet my worries were not entirely unfounded. When I got into journalism in Washington, DC, I found myself surrounded by Ivy Leaguers, with training, connections and a world view very different from mine. When I moved to The Economist’s main office, in London, the air became more rarefied still. The upper echelons of British professional life are dominated by Oxbridge (elite code for Oxford and Cambridge). At times, competing in the professional world without a degree from one of these places can feel like scaling a sheer wall without a rope: it can be done, but sometimes it seems very hard.
In 2006 I married a graduate of another public university (a slightly snootier one, whose alums refer to it as a “public Ivy”). We have two children of early school age. Every so often we find ourselves talking about what we want for their future and what they might want for themselves, asking ourselves, in so many words: how badly do we want them to go to Harvard? I don’t know if either of my children will have the inclination or the résumé to do so; my position, as a parent, is that Harvard would be lucky to have them. I still have what I imagine must be the naive ideas of a parent of young children, that they will develop their own interests and passions as they grow older: that taking a drill-sergeant approach to learning and to homework would ultimately be counterproductive.
But there is nothing like a conversation with our friends about their own child-rearing habits to make me doubt this approach. My daughter is six. Some of her classmates are woken early by their parents to bone up on maths and reading. Many of them have full after-school schedules. They attend school in Arlington, Virginia, home to one of the best public-school systems in America. Yet many worry that is not enough, and plot their children’s route to Thomas Jefferson, Northern Virginia’s highly selective magnet high school, or to the region’s tony private schools: funnels to America’s top universities and elite society, attended by the offspring of the rich and powerful.
Listening to them I think our approach is the right one. But I also feel a tremor of panic, the smallest concern that my children may be missing the slip-road onto the highway of opportunity: an echo of the fear I felt in my sweltering freshman dorm room 19 years ago.
There is a scene early in “Mary Poppins” in which Mr Banks, a well-to-do banker enjoying life in the heyday of imperial Britain, sings a little song upon arriving home from the office at 6pm. His routine is a precise one: every day he walks through the door, collects the slippers, sherry and pipe waiting for him, and then awaits the presentation of his children, washed and scrubbed, so he can “pat them on the head and send them off to bed”. “Mary Poppins” is hardly documentary, yet it reflects the habits of the British upper classes in much of the 20th century: the business of child-rearing was largely outsourced to nannies and boarding schools.
The lower orders also put relatively little effort into child-rearing, for the offspring were there to work. Children were active contributors to the family economy, caring for each other and the home, working in the fields, helping with household production of goods for sale at market, and occasionally working in factories or mines. Families had lots of children partly because they needed the labour, and partly because death rates were high. Parents also invested much less in their children’s human capital. Short lifespans and high death rates meant that the returns on educating children and preparing them for life in the world were not especially high; parents with many children could not spare much time on the upbringing of any single one.
As the West industrialised and grew richer and medicine and sanitation improved, death rates fell. Maturing economies had less need of child labour, and more need of the labour of adult women – work which took them out of the home and reduced their ability to care for large broods. What’s more, as both survival rates and the returns on education rose, the imperative when having children shifted from quantity to quality. Investing more in children’s socialisation and education served the interests of both parents and offspring.
That investment did not need to be made by the parents themselves. Gary Becker, a Nobel prizewinner and one of the 20th century’s most important economists, helped create what became known as the “new home economics” – the study of how families organised themselves and divided up responsibilities. When he began working on family economics in the 1960s, he reckoned that women have a comparative advantage in “home production”, or domestic tasks; it therefore made sense, to him anyway, that men should specialise in work outside the home and women in work inside.
In subsequent decades it became clear that this was mistaken. Women increasingly filled high-powered, well-paid professional positions. The right specialisation, it seemed, was for skilled parents to work outside the home, where they could earn lots of money, and then use some of that lucre to hire child-care professionals to rear the little ones. In the 1980s, it seemed quite probable that households would continue to evolve in precisely that direction. Like Mr Banks, they would carry on the work of empires, financial and otherwise, while the nannies managed the home.
But that isn’t exactly what has happened. Instead of increasingly outsourcing child-rearing, parents are devoting more of the scarce time left outside working hours to their children. Over the last two decades, time spent by parents on child-rearing has jumped. In America in the 1980s, for example, young mothers spent about 12 hours per week actively engaged in child care while fathers spent about four hours per week. Those figures have since soared – and the rise in hours spent with children has been greatest among better-educated, higher-earning parents. Mothers without university degrees now spend about 16 hours per week on child care, while those with degrees spend nearly 22 hours per week. For fathers the figures are seven and ten, respectively. This pattern is repeated across the rich world.
The trend toward spending more time with one’s offspring is especially strange given that better-educated, better-paid parents are not spending less time at work; on the contrary, they are spending more, both in absolute terms and relative to the working time of less-educated households. High-income parents are instead spending less time on other personal activities, including sleep. The question is: why?
Long ago, back in the 1990s, my parents were actively involved in my preparations to go to university. They kept on at me to do well in school. They went on campus visits with me and helped keep me organised during the application process. They encouraged me to keep busy and came to watch me play basketball and sing in the school choir. Getting ready for university was a big deal. But there was no urgency to get into the best school possible, whatever the cost.
Rather, school was a practical step on the path toward a sturdy, dependable career. You went to university to learn, first and foremost: to pick up the skills needed to find a trade. And while it might be nice to go to an elite institution, state schools provided great value for money. So you’d need a pretty good reason to shell out the tens of thousands of dollars it would take to go to Yale or Duke.
I didn’t have one, other than pride, and I wasn’t proud enough at the time to go to the trouble of applying to Ivy League schools. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do when I grew up, and it seemed to me that to justify going someplace fancy one needed to want to do something that really required one to go to that someplace, whatever that something might be. My parents are accountants. I knew I didn’t want to do that, but not much else. I was good at maths, so I thought I would be an engineer. The state school nearby was strong in engineering, cheap and willing to offer me a scholarship. Job done.
This was a pretty common approach to university at the time. My wife had grander ambitions than I did: she had her heart set on Brown. Yet practicality, and the sensible, affordable state school, won out.
We were, incidentally, both members of a fortunate elite of our own. At the time, about a quarter of Americans aged 25 to 29 had completed a bachelor’s degree (the figure has since risen to nearly a third). Many of those degrees were awarded by non-competitive institutions: schools which accept more or less all applicants meeting basic standards. In any given cohort, the share of students able to attend a flagship state university was relatively small.
Yet around the time I was deciding where I ought to go to university, the nature of college education in countries across the industrialised world was beginning to change. In the 1990s, the number of young people seeking higher education grew substantially, as a result of both demographic shifts and efforts, in Europe especially, to boost attendance. As a consequence, competition for places in elite universities intensified. Twenty years ago, Ivy League schools would routinely admit a quarter or more of applicants. Acceptance rates have since fallen to single digits; Harvard University accepted just over 5% of students seeking to join the class of 2020.
At the same time, the return on a college degree, in terms of the boost to one’s earnings relative to those without a college education, which had been trending up since the early 1980s, suddenly accelerated sharply. Income inequality was also beginning to become a more salient issue. The share of income in America going to the top 10% of earners topped 40% in 1995, for the first time since 1941. The precise numbers, as we have them now, were not available then. Yet it has become increasingly obvious over the past two decades that the gap between those who succeed in today’s economy and those who merely survive is large, and growing larger.
The falling acceptance rates and the rising stakes lent a new urgency to the college admissions process. And the more wrenching and decisive those years immediately before matriculation seemed to become, the earlier and the more aggressively parents and children prepared their case for the admissions officers. Adolescent years began to fill up with activities including tutoring and extra-curricular engagements, from varsity sports and producing school newspapers to debating, quiz bowls and enough charitable activity to shame a nun. By the age of 17, children were expected to have lived a full and complete life, developed their whole selves and undergone one or more personal epiphanies.
Even as the striving for scarce places at elite schools seemed set to drive parents and teenagers alike to exhaustion, the competition receded into children’s earliest years. Woe unto the Manhattan parents who waited until the birth of their young one to put her name on the list for that top preschool, which feeds so many of its “graduates” to that perfect primary school, which is a pipeline to the secondary school to the prep school to the university that is meant to bring nirvana and perfect happiness and good fortune to the people who complete the path.
It is this increasingly intense competition for spots in top universities that is responsible for the rise in parental time spent with children. We have found ourselves in a “rug-rat race”, in the phrase of economists Garey and Valerie Ramey. From very early in their children’s lives, parents – especially well-educated ones – are coaching their kids to meet the academic challenges to come. Older children are encouraged to take part in activities outside the realm of scholarship: the enriching spheres of athletics, personal interests and community service. The marathon ends with a sprint: a burst of intense preparation for placement tests and demanding university applications and interviews, at the end of which, if all goes right, the young ones are launched into the nurturing confines of a top university, which themselves are a waiting room for an adult life of consequence, a distinguished dotage and an obituary the envy of all the other strivers.
There are two competing interpretations of this trend toward greater parental investment in pursuit of academic success, both of which have their merits. In one view, it is an excellent thing. How could it not be? More parental time spent with children is almost inherently good. Parents have long told pollsters that the time they spend engaging with children is highly enjoyable (though telling strangers one does not enjoy one’s children is presumably somewhat awkward) so it is surely good for parents’ happiness to do more of what they enjoy. Investment in children in the hope of improving their long-run economic potential is bound to be good for society, which benefits from an ambitious, educated citizenry. Children, too, should benefit, even if teen years can be stressful: a stronger relationship with parents and better long-run economic prospects are valuable assets to carry into adulthood.
There is another view, though, which, if not exactly calling for less time to be spent with kids and less weight to be placed on education, is critical of the way this trend has shaped our lives. The intensity of the competition can be unhealthy for children. Kids are not machines, and need time to relax, to goof off, to have meaningless, exploratory fun with friends. An excessive focus on academic success might encourage the habit of score-keeping, making it harder for adult children to find rewarding uses for their skills or to enjoy success when they find it. Setting the stakes so high for people whose emotional capacities are still developing and maturing will set many up for depression and other mental-health problems when failure inevitably occurs.
This striving is necessarily, and worryingly, inegalitarian. Parental investment in children’s education is an arms race in which poorer families cannot hope to keep pace. Richer, better-educated families can call on many more assets in helping struggling students or providing enriching résumé-building material. The more the rug-rat race leads parents to withdraw their children from public-school systems, the worse this trend becomes.
However reluctant parents may be to run the race alongside everyone else, to over-schedule their children and drill them on their maths homework over breakfast, it is hardly a competition that one feels able to quit. It is all well and good to remove oneself from the professional rat race: to decide there are more important things in life than the next rung. To make that decision for one’s children is far more fraught. No one wants to be the parent who is lackadaisical in preparing their offspring for the working world or blasé about equipping them with whatever tools they need to have a comfortable and interesting life. We can lament the problems with the system, but when the other parents bring out the flashcards, we feel bound to as well.
Yet I wonder whether we parents are being honest with ourselves. University clearly pays. People with college degrees earn much more than those without them, and graduates from top universities generally earn much more than those from lower down the league tables. Yet that is what one would expect to happen whether or not the universities were providing any education at all; the schools which are able to select the best high-school students are bound to produce the most successful graduates. Efforts to pick apart the value added by the universities themselves find that there is some, but that elite schools are not, as a rule, the ones that do the best job improving students’ earning potential.
But perhaps the time with parents is itself doing some good? If parents exhaust themselves and their children preparing the latter to win an intense admissions battle, only to miss out on acceptance at elite universities, that might not be much of a loss at all; it could be that the preparation itself is what is pushing the best educated away from the rest: the incentive created by the rug-rat race encourages parental-time investments, which in turn reinforce the gap between high and low achieving adults. Certainly there is truth to that. Children who grow up in house-holds with more books, and who hear more words spoken to them each day, do better in school than their peers and enjoy advantages that last throughout their lives.
On the other hand, much of the increase in the time which parents spend with their children happens not in those critical formative years, but later on. Do teenagers really learn much from a parent who ferries them from dance class to tennis lessons to debate club, then brews the coffee while they finish their homework, before turning to SAT prep (and eventually bed, for a few hours before the alarm sounds to start the next day)? And those who start earlier, running through flashcards of the times tables with their toddlers – what are they contributing? Is the child learning more about mathematics, or about how it should live its life? Parents are teaching their children many things, including what sorts of achievement matter and what one ought to do to attain them.
Looked at in that way, parental behaviour makes more sense. The striving in pursuit of a good which advertises our success, whose value derives mostly from its exclusivity, is an extension of our own work toward our own goals. A successful child is not exactly like a home in a posh neighbourhood, or a Birkin bag, or a piece of art by a trendy painter, because its success is socially useful: it is more likely to have a pleasant and productive life if it is well-educated than if it isn’t. But a successful child is a little like that house or bag or picture. It feels good to show it off; it elevates our status in others’ eyes.
Children see all this. They discover why they are being made to do all the things they are being made to do. Because life is a contest, there can only be so many winners, and the winners receive big rewards. Get used to it. Get ready to compete.
Of course, life is a contest. Some people end up with more than others, and those that do are the ones who are smarter, and who work harder, and who have allies, like parents, willing to employ their power, money and privilege on their behalf.
But in life, unlike in education, there are no winners. University is full of binaries. You get into Harvard or you don’t. You graduate or you don’t. You finish top of the class or you don’t. Life is not like that. There is no finish line after which results are compared and winners and losers determined. Parents are investing massive amounts of time preparing their children to win a race that cannot be won. Those children learn to run like mad in pursuit of some elusive end result, until they give up or expire from exhaustion.
That sense of panic that I felt in my first year at university has recurred off and on. It was there in my early 20s, when my friends and I lamented our entry-level jobs and ran in terror to graduate school to be spared the need to confront the sheer awfulness of adult life. It is there, a bit, when I learn of a peer’s great success. And it is there, I find, when I hear of the achievements and talents of my friends’ children.
That panic is useful. It is a spur in the gut, reminding me to keep running. But I don’t want my kids to feel that panic.
At the end of “Mary Poppins”, in an effort to spend more time with his children, Mr Banks takes them to his bank to teach them about the wonders of high finance. They inadvertently trigger a bank run and get their father sacked. His life upended in a moment, Mr Banks has an epiphany. He realises he has got his priorities wrong, develops a carefree attitude, and goes off to fly kites with his children. He has learned that the secret to happiness is not simply to spend time with one’s children, but to share their world, to maintain a childlike wonder and to find the joy in every moment.
My daughter, as it turns out, has a childlike wonder and passion for facts. She loves them and wants more of them. At six, she devours books and asks question after question. Her favourite thing to hear about is the formation of the solar system. I’ve become pretty good at telling that one.
I don’t know if she will be a good student or not. Like her father, she is disorganised and struggles to find the motivation to do tasks that don’t interest her. (My three-year-old son, on the other hand, is a determined perfectionist, like his mother.) I want to help teach them how to follow their passions, and how to strive for the things they want, rather than for empty markers of success. But I am discovering that I don’t know how to channel their personalities and interests towards a good, happy, fulfilled life any more than I knew what to do with myself, scared in that freshman dorm room.
So I think I’m going to spend more time with my children. I’m hoping I can learn something from them.