Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Women at the Top

This is a very readable review-cum-set of musings on Alison Wolf's The XX Factor (that book about high-achieving upper middle class women).

There are a few interesting thoughts, for example: "I think there is some reason to believe that the emotional bond between parents is to some extent redirected toward the children; the term “housewife,” which calls attention to the woman’s relationship to her husband, has been replaced by “stay-at-home mom,” which focuses on her relationship with her children."

I am most interested in the author's comments about children and child-rearing. Wolf's thesis is that upper-middle class families nowadays (and this applies pretty much equally to men and women) are dedicated to two things: their work and their children. This is interesting to the reviewer in three ways. (More below.)

First, children's experiences, in this section of society, have changed in ways that previous generations find surprising:

"households now more or less explicitly revolve around the children. They are asked for their opinions about many details of their lives—from what socks they want to wear to what they want for breakfast to whether they want to go to the playground—and they can change their minds repeatedly (manifested at mealtime by refusing to eat what they just said they wanted). Often both parents are simultaneously involved in decisions that look unimportant to me, and it takes on the character of a staff meeting. Child rearing is therefore less efficient than it was, because both parents are involved and there are more choices on offer.

Moreover, as some of my friends—also grandmothers—have observed, parents seem almost superhumanly patient. Discipline consists of distracting young children, not confronting them. When there are serious infractions, parents count to three, with the threat that at the end of three there will be a “time-out,” but it doesn’t usually come to that because by the end of the count, the whole thing has been renegotiated. Young children seldom have to face a head-on No. Reprimands often end with “Okay?,” as if they were the opening of a negotiation or assent were required. Jennifer Senior quotes one mother saying to her four-year-old, who has just put Play-Doh in his yogurt, “Everything off the table until I wipe it up, okay?”

The Play-Doh story is sufficiently striking to be quoted in someone's book, but I think it fairly indicates a wider truth.

Second, reduced discipline notwithstanding, children seem to be ok so far: "Young upper-middle-class children are, indeed, remarkably precocious. Since they have been exposed to adult conversations almost constantly from birth, they are much more articulate and broadly knowledgeable than children were a generation ago. They are also remarkably at ease with other people, both adults and children, because they are with them so much—with their parents’ friends, in early preschool, and in playgroups often organized among nannies. And having endured little frustration or isolation, they seem to me happier and more affectionate than children were in earlier generations. They love being with their parents (and why not?). They don’t go “up the street” to do “nothing,” as my friends and I did. They stick close to home, and their best friends are their parents." Again, I think that's fair.

The writer worries about what will happen when these children face adversity or solitude. It's a worry, of course, but there is reason to think that coming at life with sunny optimism and a happy childhood is not a bad preparation for the inevitable setbacks. 

She also worries about extended adolescence. For example: "I know people in their twenties who text their parents nearly every day from college, just to keep in touch." Yes, it does sound a bit babyish but on reflection I can't see that it is necessarily a bad thing. I understand the aesthetic concern: once upon a time, so the story goes, a 20-something put on a hat and a suit, got a job and became a man; nowadays that man's parents are still wearing jeans and saying 'ok?' at the end of their sentences while they lend him money to start a niche coffee shop. Perhaps that is a bit silly, but everyone's a bit happier and no one's doing anything bad, so, on balance, isn't that a good thing?

Third, the writer wonders why parents put in so much effort. "Much of what privileged parents are trying to accomplish, says Wolf, is to ensure that their children do not fall out of the upper-middle class. To that end, parents work on their children’s résumés, almost from birth. As infants, their toys need to be educational as well as enjoyable. Getting into the right preschool is a precursor to getting into the right elementary school, and so on, right up until they are set up to get into the most prestigious colleges and beyond. I believe obsessive parenting, born of insecurity about the future, imagines the world to be more precarious than it probably is for upper-middle-class children. Just as upward mobility has become harder, I suspect downward mobility is also harder. Socioeconomic strata are now, unfortunately, fairly fixed, and these parents have the means to cushion setbacks. Nevertheless, privileged parents don’t want to take any chances."

On this point, I think I can help. First, a short point. Downward mobility and upward mobility are precisely correlated: if someone goes from the bottom percentile to the top percentile then someone has to have left the top percentile and someone has to have joined the bottom percentile. Social mobility is a zero-sum game.

I agree that social mobility across the strata is pretty low, it correlates with surnames, etc etc. But that does not mean that one should not worry about it, for a couple of reason. For one thing, that's the way people are. Try this thought experiment: imagine you were transported into the distant past and then you married someone who fell ill. You know that doctors will likely be quacks who know nothing. They'll suggest bleeding or leeches or some "medicine" full of mercury. But what do you do? You'd get the best medical care available. It might work. It might have a placebo effect. And what would people who loved or respected you think if you just said, "I'm not even going to try the doctors"? They know the doctors aren't guaranteed to make people better, but they won't think much of someone who doesn't even try. So people try the best that's out there, whether they believe it will work or not.

But, for the upper middle classes, there is a real worry. While there isn't much social mobility in terms of moving between the strata, there has been a huge stretching out of what the difference between the 0.0001% and the 1% (and the 1% and the rest) means - and that is worth worrying about if you can see your children falling behind.

£28,000 a year household income is the gross income in the UK for lowest boundary of the sixth decile, according to the ONS, i.e. that is the 50% mark. If you double your income, that will put you comfortably in the top 20%. In fact, all you need is an extra £25,000 a year to make that jump. That gives you a picture of what social mobility means in the middle of the income distribution curve: a £10,000 a year pay rise  means that you jump a lot of people - over 10% of the population. Your life probably doesn't look very different afterwards (we're talking about a new car, not a superyacht) but you'll notice the difference and so will your friends.

However, if you are in the top 1% then the situation is completely different. A £10,000 a year pay rise - or a £25,000 one - won't move you through the income distribution curve at all. Here are some US figures for 2011, which will probably be a fair guide to UK ones in 2014: "a family enters the top 1% or so today with somewhere around $300k to $400k in pre-tax annual income", while "Those in the top 0.5% have incomes over $500k". So, if you are earning around £250,000, towards the lower end of the top 1%, then getting a 40% pay rise (the equivalent of getting a £10,000 pay rise on an income of £25,000) is not going to make much difference to the national income distribution statistics (it might move you from the top 0.9% to the top 0.5% and who cares about that?). But it's going to make a massive difference to your life. And if you are earning that sort of money then you will want your children to have whatever tiny advantages there are in life: you know that very small relative differences make very large absolute differences.

Equally, it's not at all reassuring to be told that your child is unlikely to fall out of the top 10%. To make the top 10% means making about £72,000 a year, about a third of what you are making in the top 1%, and there's little reassurance to be had from being told that your child could well be significantly closer to absolute penury than to having your income, and be wholly unable to afford most of what you take for granted. Only a bad person would be cheered up to hear that 90% of the population will be doing even worse.

Bear in mind that nowadays this is all earned income. To a first approximation, everyone in the top 1% has a job and none of them can guarantee their children a top 1% income on the basis of their assets alone: a £250,000 a year pre-tax income gets very quickly eaten up by taxes, mortgage and school fees, leaving little for accumulation. (And, unlike the position for the bottom percentiles, the state won't guarantee a comparable income either.) If their children are going to have the same lifestyle as themselves, they will have to earn it. And that means succeeding at the various educational and professional challenges that they have succeeded at - and seen many of their contemporaries fail at.

People in every class want their children to do well. They quite like them to do better than other people's children, but by and large people care more about how well their children do in absolute terms. However, at the top of the income curve, how well you do in absolute terms is very sensitive to very very small differences in ability. The world really is very precarious for upper-middle class families across the generations. 

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