Matthias Doepke & Fabrizio Zilibotti: The economics of motherhood

EconomicsIn times of heightened economic anxiety, for many American families the celebration of Mother’s Day this weekend will provide a welcome respite from the stress of everyday life. At least for this one day, love and the close bond between mothers and their children take center stage, and worries about money, careers, and other economic concerns are put on hold. Indeed, one reason that there is a special celebration for mothers is precisely that motherhood lacks the formal recognition that the market economy bestows on other activities: mothers do not draw official salaries, acquire fancy job titles, or advance within a corporate hierarchy. Instead, motherhood is an unpaid “labor of love,” and hence a phenomenon where the laws of economics seemingly do not apply.

Yet on closer inspection, even motherhood does have an undeniable economic dimension. To start, there is the economic impact of the celebration of Mother’s Day itself. Florists, greeting card companies, and restaurants serving brunch will do brisk business, and many consider the holiday at risk of becoming overly commercialized.

But the economic roots of motherhood go much deeper than that. Economic forces helped shape the role of motherhood in society, and are in large part responsible for two major transformations in how Western society conceives of the meaning and importance of motherhood.

The first of these transformations started with the Industrial Revolution, and continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Mothers always had a special role in nurturing children, particularly so for the infants who needed to be breastfed. However, in earlier times the separation between the roles of mothers and fathers was less sharp than later on. Work and home life played out in the same place, say, the family’s farm or artisanal workshop, and children grew up in close proximity to both parents and other family members. Children also started to work from a young age, so that especially boys soon spent more time with their fathers than their mothers.

The Industrial Revolution sharpened the division between mothers’ and fathers’ roles in the family. The introduction of factories and the rise of commuting that followed the spread of railways and streetcars separated the work and home spheres. While men were pushed into the role of exclusive economic provider, women were expected to focus on the home. In addition, as the industrial economy created demand for workers who could read and write, providing children with a proper education became an important aim for most families, and the responsibility for this fell squarely on the mothers. The result was what historians term the “Cult of Domesticity,” a new value system that emphasized the role of women as mothers and educators and discouraged working outside the home.

While motherhood was idolized, mothers were also pushed out of the labor force. In addition to the new cultural norms against working mothers, outright discrimination such as the “marriage bars” that excluded married women from many professions also contributed to defining women more exclusively through their role as mothers. By the early twentieth century, it had become rare for married women with children to be working. It was in this era of idealized motherhood but also strictly separated roles for women and men that the current incarnation of the Mother’s Day holiday in the United States was created.

The second economic transformation of motherhood started with World War II and is still ongoing today. During the war, millions of mothers joined the labor force to support the war effort while the men were fighting overseas. The women of this “Rosie the Riveter” generation demonstrated that women’s contributions do not have to be limited to the home, and many of them found enjoyment and fulfillment in being in the labor force and gaining more independence.

After the war, the traditional division of labor was reestablished to some extent. But over time, more and more women decided to continue working even after marrying and having children, and by today most women, and most mothers, are in the labor force.

In large part, this transformation in the labor market was driven by technological change. Over time, the economy shifted from agriculture and manufacturing to services, eroding men’s traditional advantage in work that rewarded physical strength. Technological change also transformed the household: modern household appliances and market alternatives to home-produced goods such as day care centers and restaurants have reduced the time required to run the household and freed up time for work.

Today, motherhood is no longer defined exclusively through caring for children, but much more so through the “having it all” challenge of combining careers and family life. Nevertheless, the impact of the older role models and cultural norms can still be felt. Notably, time use data show that women continue to bear a disproportionate share of child care work and household chores.

Hence, despite the transformed meaning of motherhood in society, there are still good reasons for a special celebration of mothers. In addition to buying flowers and chocolates, men could do even better by expressing their gratitude through putting in equal time in child care and household chores, and not just on holidays.

By familiarizing themselves with the dishwasher, diapers, and their children’s clothing needs, men could prove to be truly ahead of their time. Economic trends will continue to shape the meaning of motherhood, and fatherhood, for the next generation. Women now graduate in much larger numbers from college than men do, and in today’s knowledge economy that gives them an advantage. Women will soon be the main earners in a large fraction of families. Over time, cultural norms will adjust to this change. The current model of mothers doing most of the household work in exchange for a once-a-year celebration will gradually fade into memory, which is something to look forward to this Mother’s Day.

Matthias Doepke is professor of economics at Northwestern University. He lives in Evanston, Illinois. Fabrizio Zilibotti is the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut. Their new book, Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids is forthcoming from Princeton University Press in February 2019. 

Caitlyn Collins: Take Your Child to Work Day

MotherhoodFor my mom, Take Your Child to Work Day happened a lot more than once a year. And they weren’t planned as part of a national “holiday” sponsored by the likes of Goldman Sachs, MetLife, and Chevron. They usually weren’t planned at all, and they weren’t a celebration.

Babysitters called in sick and daycare closed early. Schools had snow days, teacher planning days, holidays, and what seemed to be closed-for-no-clear-reason days. We ran a fever or caught a cold and needed to be picked up early. Or we were too sick to attend daycare or school at all.

So like mothers throughout the country, she hauled us to her office. I realize now, only decades later, the many ways she paid a price. Trying to keep us happy and quiet while she rushed to finish her work wasn’t Alyson’s idea of a quality learning experience for her kids or an ideal workday for her. These times filled her with dread, not joy.

And they weren’t always fun for us either. A child sick with the flu would rather be home than napping in an office during a conference call (not to mention that the flu is a health risk at work as well as at school). And a snow day spent cooped up at a parent’s workplace is a special kind of hell for kids.

This isn’t what the creators of Take Your Child to Work Day envisioned.

My mom would rarely have had to bear these panicked days if our system was set up differently. Work and family are largely incompatible in the United States. Women still to do most of the work involved in raising kids today. And benefits to support this caring labor are few and far between. U.S. society thinks of kids and families as private responsibilities. For instance, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation with no minimum standard for sick days and vacation days. The country stands alone as the only nation with no federal paid maternity leave (well, the U.S. and Papua New Guinea). The word “family” appears in nearly every country’s Constitution except the U.S.’ National childcare is the norm in other western market economies, but it’s not even a glimmer on the horizon here.

What does life look like for mothers elsewhere? Do all moms struggle like mine to schlep their children to work when plans go awry? Or are there other ways to organize work and care (that still involve donuts and snow days)?

My book, Making Motherhood Work (forthcoming 2019), explores the daily lives of working moms in four countries that offer very different policy solutions to work-family conflict and gender inequality. Using interviews with 135 women in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the U.S., I consider how women perceive motherhood and employment in light of the available policies.

After five years of conversations, I realized that work-family conflict like my mom’s is not an unfortunate certainty for women everywhere. Life for all women and their families—regardless of income, race, region, faith, or migration background—can look different, and better.

The tradition of taking one’s children to work each April began 25 years ago with Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women. Then it was called “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” Ten years later, it expanded to include boys and is now “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” I see two big reasons to celebrate this day.

First, the original intent was to introduce girls to a wide variety of occupations. Encouraging girls and young women to dream big about their career aspirations remains a laudable goal. Our work organizations and labor market remain deeply unequal. Women still lag behind men in hiring, earnings, and promotions in the workplace—especially women of color. Many women remain clustered in female-typed jobs that are less prestigious with lower pay, which sociologists Maria Charles and David Grusky call “occupational ghettos.” And a woman has yet to hold the highest office in the country.

You can’t be what you can’t see. It’s important that girls meet women role models in all lines and at all levels of work. I witnessed my mother achieve her career goals, but others don’t get this privilege. Not all jobs are good jobs. The lessons a child learns visiting a parent who works as a bus driver are wildly different than those gleaned from a day at a parent’s law firm. Upgrading working conditions across the labor market would give children of all backgrounds more to aspire to, and better odds of achieving these goals with the resources necessary to survive and thrive.

Second, employers come face to face with the reality that workers have responsibilities outside of their jobs, and these commitments are very often to children. Recognizing employees’ childrearing responsibilities shouldn’t mean that these workers are seen as less capable and committed on the job as a result. Helping parents is good not only for families, but also for business.

I would like us to set our sets much higher than Take Your Child to Work Day. Let’s think more ambitiously and brightly about what it means to work and care and dream about one’s future in the United States.

Rather than asking girls to set their sights higher or for workplaces to accommodate families one day a year, what changes can be made on a national level to make the lives of all families better and happier? And what role can organizations play in making this vision a reality? Making Motherhood Work demonstrates that we need to overhaul our social policies and cultural attitudes about work and family if we really want to improve conditions for families.

So take your child to work today, or even someone else’s. Encourage kids to think expansively about their interests, especially those who too often aren’t encouraged to dream at all. Remind employers that you’re a better worker because of your family, not in spite of it.

But let’s also hold ourselves to a higher standard as a nation.

Moms like mine deserve better, and so do the country’s kids. And not just 1/365th of the time.

Caitlyn Collins is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University. Her new book, Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, is forthcoming in January 2019. 

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Conspicuous consumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the ‘aspirational class’. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call ‘inconspicuous consumption’. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

The rise of the aspirational class and its consumer habits is perhaps most salient in the United States. The US Consumer Expenditure Survey data reveals that, since 2007, the country’s top 1 per cent (people earning upwards of $300,000 per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward. Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1 per cent now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6 per cent of top 1 per cent household expenditures, compared with just over 1 per cent of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1 per cent spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.

The vast chasm between middle-income and top 1 per cent spending on education in the US is particularly concerning because, unlike material goods, education has become more and more expensive in recent decades. Thus, there is a greater need to devote financial resources to education to be able to afford it at all. According to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from 2003-2013, the price of college tuition increased 80 per cent, while the cost of women’s apparel increased by just 6 per cent over the same period. Middle-class lack of investment in education doesn’t suggest a lack of prioritising as much as it reveals that, for those in the 40th-60th quintiles, education is so cost-prohibitive it’s almost not worth trying to save for.

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27 per cent of mothers fulfill this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11 per cent).

Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today’s aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.

Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

More profoundly, investment in education, healthcare and retirement has a notable impact on consumers’ quality of life, and also on the future life chances of the next generation. Today’s inconspicuous consumption is a far more pernicious form of status spending than the conspicuous consumption of Veblen’s time. Inconspicuous consumption – whether breastfeeding or education – is a means to a better quality of life and improved social mobility for one’s own children, whereas conspicuous consumption is merely an end in itself – simply ostentation. For today’s aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.Aeon counter – do not remove

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the Price School, University of Southern California. Her latest book is The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (2017). She lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Paula S. Fass: Hillary Clinton and the politics of motherhood

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By Paula S. Fass

It was clear from the beginning of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that the “woman issue” was going to play a large part, with an emphasis on shattering glass ceilings. What was not clear until the convention was the degree to which this would be centered on mothers and mothering. The Democratic National Convention showcased many things, including American multiculturalism and patriotism, but nothing was as prominent as the emphasis on mothers and motherhood.

In many parts of the convention, the mothers of young people who were either victims or heroes were a featured part of the proceedings. Clinton’s most personal discussion in her acceptance speech was about her mother, Dorothy. Chelsea Clinton’s introduction was all about Clinton’s role as a mother and grandmother. The video introducing Mrs. Clinton showcased her work with the Children’s Defense Fund. Motherhood was everywhere in the convention – a glowing and effusive tribute not to women per se but to women as mothers. Not since the early twentieth century, when women’s public presence and their striving for the vote was geared toward the protection of children and families, has motherhood been so prominently featured in politics. Drawing on this older tradition, through which women influenced public affairs, Clinton spoke to ideals of protection for families and social inclusion. Clinton and her campaign hope to make these ideals just as appealing today.

Donald Trump made this an easy choice for Clinton and the Democratic Party. He has presented himself as someone who is not only self-consciously macho, but who wants to serve as a kind of disciplinarian for the society, a law and order candidate who strives to take command, and an authoritarian father who will fix what ails us as a nation. In a contrary symbolic move, Hillary Clinton presentation of herself in the guise of motherhood and her emphasis on the softer, more inclusive aspects of national culture became an almost predictable response.

But more than symbolism is at stake. As Donald Trump was increasingly portrayed during the Democratic National Convention as not in tune with American values, as ignorant of American history and untutored in constitutional principles, Democrats emphasized the degree to which our family values are also our national values. And here they had a substantial base to work from. Since the beginning of the American republic, American child rearing has encouraged a much more democratic ethos between the generations, one that saw children as having not only a role to play, but the right to a voice in family deliberations. In the family as well as in the society, Americans de-emphasized hierarchy and saw children as resourceful and independent. In a democracy, children would learn early to guide their own futures.

Since the early nineteenth century, mothers have played a much more conspicuous part in family affairs. Americans rejected patriarchy in their family relationships since almost the start of national identity and, ever since, have inscribed these views of family life as a basic resource of national life. This does not mean that there were not families where fathers emphatically ruled and were authoritarian and dictatorial, but these traits were rejected as norms of the culture. In the nineteenth century, mothers, not father were believed to guide their children toward morality and social conscience in an individualistic society; in the twentieth, child rearing advisors believed that mothers could be enlisted to make sure that children were healthy and psychologically well adjusted. In an individualistic society, with an emphasis on competition and winning, the family provided necessary ballast.

Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Convention have used this history to great effect, showcasing an American tradition of family democracy and making the strong connection between American family life and American political life. The resonance was clear in the enthusiastic reception at the convention. It will also provide the late summer and fall campaign with a substantial basis for appealing to Americans across the country. It is revealing that the first woman seriously to be considered for the American presidency (and the likely first female President) will have chosen to appeal to the public on the basis of this fundamental national experience rather than the overt feminism that she embraced as a First Lady with an office in the West Wing. Donald Trump made Hillary Clinton’s choice easy, but American history made it obvious.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.