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It Takes Two

Give David Brooks credit for tackling the work/family issue and for being open to the idea that the government might need to spend money (even if he wants to call "spending money" a "means-tested tax credit") in order to ameliorate the situation. But you'll notice that something -- indeed, roughly half the population -- seems to have gone missing from Brooks' account: Men. On the one hand, why aren't the men supposed to be doing more of the child-rearing? And while I won't belabor the point at great length, who are these young, college-educated women supposed to be marrying at 23 or 24 such that their husband will be able to support them and a couple of kids during the ages 25-35? Not me, that's for sure. And not just because I am (we are) too irresponsible, but because I (we) don't earn nearly enough money. Presumably, you marry some older dudes who've already finished law school or established themselves as New York Times columnists or what have you. Gotta dump that college boyfriend, of course. It's almost enough to make you think the whole proposal is an insidious plot by middle aged men to get twentysomething women to all stop dating twentysomething men and go after older guys instead.

Besides which, if you seriously left college, got married almost immediately to an older man, gave birth to and raised some kids, and planned to start your career in your late-30s early 40s, you'd be leaving yourself exposed to a massive drop in living standards if your marriage split up. Most women face this possibility under the present arrangement already, but the Brooks Plan would make it much worse. Besides which, there's the simply fact of humiliation. Professional women would, under this plan, be systematically 10-15 years older than their male colleagues and 5-10 years older than their male supervisors/superiors. Such things happen, of course, but it would be weird and no doubt lead to all sorts of workplace conflicts.

January 15, 2005 | Permalink

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I asked "why do they pay David Brooks to write drivel like this?" Despite it being drivel, it does generate comment. Lots and lots of it. But I still think that it's not a column that thoughtfully provokes comment --... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 18, 2005 9:59:32 AM

Comments

It's almost enough to make you think the whole proposal is an insidious plot by middle aged men to get twentysomething women to all stop dating twentysomething men and go after older guys instead.

Right on!

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Jan 15, 2005 3:17:48 PM

It's tough to think of a less conservative proposal.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Jan 15, 2005 3:19:36 PM

When Brooks writes this:

For example, it might make more sense to go to college, make a greater effort to marry early and have children. Then, if she, rather than her spouse, wants to stay home, she could raise children from age 25 to 35. Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents. Then she could work in one uninterrupted stint from, say, 40 to 70. This option would allow her to raise kids during her most fertile years and work during her mature ones, and the trade-off between family and career might be less onerous. But the fact is that right now, there are few social institutions that are friendly to this way of living. Social custom flows in the opposite direction.

...I don't get what he's saying at all. Why are "social customs" supposedly flowing "in the opposite direction." Are they? I doubt they are to any great extent in much of red state America (sorry, but, this subject seems to insert itself naturally in so many discussions these days; especially when Brooks is involved). There are plenty of dudes, maybe a little bit older than 25 (sorry youngins) who are financially capable of supporting a non-working spouse. The life pattern sketeched out by Brooks seems just as accomplishable if women want to raise kids; the "problem" is that raising kids is simply not the main priority for many 24-year old women (well, it may be in Utah, but that's a different story). I don't know what kind of policies are going to make having kids easier at a young age, especially if one is not willing to prioritize over issues of economics. Should we allow mortgage interest to be 300% deductible to 20-somethings? Maybe make graduate school tuition deductible to women who have already had children, but not to those who are childless? I mean, if your goal is making partner by 31, or owning a Manhattan apartnment by age 34, and you accomplish these goals, what's the problem?

Maybe some day getting pregnant at age 44 will be medically guaranteed. It's not right now, but, there's always adoption. And yes, as Matt points out, Brooks pretty much ignores males in this rather non-sensical column.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Jan 15, 2005 4:42:33 PM

I find the whole thing deeply creepy. Some guy sitting around imagining a life sequence for me based on tables of fertility rates and surveys indicating upto 14% of the women over 40 may not be happy without children--it's a little creepy. The social engineering that would be required to make this work is mindboggling. I kinda think 30 year old housewives who haven't been in school in 8 years are going to have a hard time getting those eager-beaver entry level jobs. They seem to be designed for people who are fresh out of college. So besides being designed to encourage young women to marry older men, this plan's designed to make graduate school a necessity. As Matt points out, it would be much easier if Dads were equally willing to "take time off to raise the kids" (a trend I do see) and also if 30-something boyfriends were more willing to make up their mind and get married and have the kids they're going to end up trying to have anyway--would probably save them a lot of money in fertility treatments and complicated birth costs.

Brooks' whole tone is weird. This is a particularly weird sentence: Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids. I think he means to have it be more like "just when she has acquired," but he makes it sound like Everywoman is finally not stupid enough to realize that a job isn't what she wants out of life, taking care of babies is what she wants out of life. Then there's this: "She may or may not be still interested in the field she was trained for(two decades earlier)". Well, yeah, but at 35 she may not even remember what made her brain happy at 22. Hell, at 25 I have a hard time remembering what made my brain happy at 22.

Actually his scenario sounds like what happens to a lot of women I've met in school, who got married young, and then got left in their 30s. They've all done much better, economically, than you'd think they'd do, probably because their children provide them with enormous amounts of skill and motivation, but I don't any of them would pick that life sequence. On one hand they can't really regret it because that would mean regretting their living, breathing, beloved babies. But on the other hand they always advise 20-somethings to stick with the program and build that career before settling down.

I'd like to see a similar survey of men over a certain age who haven't had children, just for comparison's sake. Why does everyone assume it's only women who get "soul-encompassing sadness" from childlessness?

Posted by: Saheli | Jan 15, 2005 4:43:51 PM

The reason there's not a similar study for men is biology: males can have genetically related offspring at any stage of life. Women have a window. But where's the adoption option in all this? While it's more challenging for a single parent to adopt than a couple, many of these women could still raise children if they were willing to foresake a genetic connection.

Posted by: Amber | Jan 15, 2005 5:14:15 PM

"[W]ho are these young, college-educated women supposed to be marrying at 23 or 24 such that their husband will be able to support them and a couple of kids during the ages 25-35? Not me, that's for sure. And not just because I am (we are) too irresponsible, but because I (we) don't earn nearly enough money."

Um, that's because you didn't aim to marry and start your family in your twenties, Matt--and neither, I assume, have been the majority of women you've dated. If that were your aim, on the other hand, you'd find that you could, in fact, probably make enough money. Retail. Manufacturing. Sales. Teaching. Accountancy. Data entry. And so forth. You'd have to live cheaper, of course, and go into debt perhaps, but as a 36-year-old father of three girls (oldest age 8) who has been married for 11 years to a currently non-working spouse, I think I can argue it's doable. And not just in red states either: what do you think the odds are that the 27-year-old El Salvadoran immigrant fixing potholes in front of your apartment this morning is married with kids? If my experience with Salvadorans in D.C. from a few years back are any indication, I'd say they're probably pretty good.

As P.B. rightly observes, there's no sense of prioritization in Brooks's piece. Does he think he's making a normative argument for having children earlier than is common in his blue-state environs? Or does he actually think such priorities really are there, just waiting to be acted upon, but current social and economic conditions are insufficient for them to be realized? As always, Brooks is smart, but the class and cultural insensitivities that litter his prose make reading him, as Saheli observes, "deeply creepy."

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Jan 15, 2005 5:23:03 PM

I am confused - what exactly is the "work/family issue" that needs to be addressed here? That some women are unhappy that they face a tradeoff between kids and career? Everyone faces important tradeoffs of various kinds, and we don't generally see this as a reason to subsidize one alternative over the other. People *like* to have kids, and if the average women has a comparative advantage in raising them, this isn't a reason to subsidize the activity. Of course, one could motivate the policy intervention by arguing that there was some sort of market failure at work here (imperfect capital markets come to mind), but I see no real attempt at this in Brook's column.

Posted by: Ryan | Jan 15, 2005 8:21:07 PM

Thank you! I got creeped out reading Brook's column, even though the career/family pattern he recommends is exactly the one my mother happily followed. College, marriage, teacher until kids born, grad school while I was a toddler, raised the family, then became a public interest lobbyist in her 40s until she retired.

So this pattern can work. But... the only real way to make it practical would be to go back to good old divorce-with-alimony, where a husband would be required to support an ex-wife if she had stayed home with the children. A woman's earning power is lower for the rest of her life if she does this. Divorce laws should recognize it.

A real change the government could make that would help young families would be to start enforcing overtime rules, making sure that the sorts of jobs that people have today are 40-hour-a-week jobs. Talking about how families should all sit down for dinner together means nothing if you are scapping overtime protections.

And how are these young families supposed to afford houses anyway?

Posted by: Mary R | Jan 15, 2005 8:48:17 PM

I truly thought Brooks' piece was silly and ridiculous. I started to blog about it, and then just didn't even find it a worthwhile use of my time. He overgeneralizes, leaves men out of the equation, and treats women like they're generic cattle to be bred and then put out to work.

And he leaves out dreams, goals, heart, feelings and lives. And dignity.

Leave it to a conservative man to plan women's lives and childbearing FOR them.

Posted by: Deborah White | Jan 15, 2005 8:52:19 PM

Weird, weird, weird piece. Brook is simply not in the real world here. What's especially strange (besides his apparent ignorance of the existence of fathers, divorce, realities of the workplace or how bizarre it all sounds) is this strange sequence - unable to abandon either woman-as-housewife or woman as worker, he simply stacks one on top of the other, with all the unfortunate consequences listed above. It seems to me that a better solution is to promote policies that allow (much) more generous maternal and paternal leave, flexibility, tax credits, etc., (add in a host of other family-friendly policies) . . .

Russell - of course it's possible to start a family in your twenties on a single income, as you and countless other couples prove. I think you might underestimate how much harder it is getting, as the social safety net frays, job protections dwindle, wages drop, and benefits shrink. Additionally, in many cases it would violate two important values vital to the reproduction of the middle class - avoidance of risk and maximization of benefits. Living cheaper might well translate into a riskier neighborhood, poorer schools, lower quality medical care, etc. At least there are still public libraries, public radio, free days at the zoo and suggested admissions at museums, although housing costs would mean that many such families would end up living rather further away from the last two then they might have otherwise . . .

Brooks has been on this odd pronatalist kick for a while. I'm waiting for the editorial where he explains, in a creepily calm tone, how it really is every woman's duty to produce male children to defend the Homeland . . . Don't mess with National Greatness Conservatism, yo!

Important point, though - Brooks has been doing a couple of these - what he clearly intends to be moderate middle-way 2% solution-style pieces - and while I tend to regard him in the same light as grandmothers with suspicously large teeth or strange-looking sheep that unaccountably leave wolf tracks, he's not stupid. They tend to map out areas where his party is weak and where either the Democrats or Progressives in general could make gains or at least hold the line. Family-friendly policies are one, which framed correctly covers a great deal of things.

Democrats: The Good Provider Party . . .

-Dan S.

Posted by: Dan S. | Jan 15, 2005 11:11:19 PM

Russel: For one thing, if someone would fix my potholes, I'd be very happy indeed. For another thing, the married-with-children Salvadorans I know all have wives who work. That seems to be the norm. I think red versus blue costs of living are very relevant here, especially with regard to housing costs. I have a four bedroom apartment right now, ideally suited for a growing family. But instead of renting it on one income and supporting a wife and three kids, it's rented by a four income household of twentysomething single guys. No doubt, all of us could economize more than we do and afford the place on two or maybe three incomes. But on one? No way. And it's hardly in the most posh part of town.

Now the point that neither I nor my roommates have been planning our lives around the idea of getting married circa 23 and having kids circa 26 is fair enough. But that just drives home my first point -- you can't leave the men out of the picture here. Just asserting that women should do things differently is neither here nor there. As the title of my post says, "it takes two."

For the record, my parents were somewhat atypical in this regard. My mom was 30 when I (the oldest of two) was born, but my dad was 27. Then again, my dad dropped out of high school to start working when he was around 17 and has managed to do quite well for himself notwithstanding. He's probably one of the top ten highest-earning Americans without a high school diploma at this point.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jan 16, 2005 2:32:55 AM

Brooks is a deeply sentimental person, which is why he sometimes says brilliant things (many of us are sentimental). In this case, he's laughable. I'm 59, female, never had children (by choice) and of course I know and feel that I lost out on some things. However, I gained in areas Brooks apparently thinks women don't care about: for example, in the kind of wisdom that comes from being in a competitive market and managing to stay human. I've made up somewhat for what I lost by staying close to family and being an adored aunt. It's all about choices and making the best of them.
But one thing everyone seems to ignore is that we're overpopulated, for god's sake. People know this instinctively and make "choices" that conform with this knowledge, like not to have lots of children. It's highly adaptive now in this country to have one child max and throw all your resources into that one child. We are animals, after all, underneath this gorgeous surface.

Posted by: Rosemary | Jan 16, 2005 7:08:01 AM

Dan,

"I think you might underestimate how much harder it is getting, as the social safety net frays, job protections dwindle, wages drop, and benefits shrink. Additionally, in many cases it would violate two important values vital to the reproduction of the middle class - avoidance of risk and maximization of benefits."

Actually, I don't underestimate it at all, though obviously I didn't make that point in my comment. I'd be the first to acknowledge--even insist!--that the conditions which make it possible for "middle class values" (or any sort of family-friendly values for that matter) to be maintained, much less extended to the poor, most immigrants, and young people who want to live in accordance with them, depend upon government action in the face of an economy which is undermining long-term security, disrupting neighborhoods, eating away at state and local budgets (and thus the preservation of public spaces and institutions like parks, libraries, etc.), and so forth. (Matt once called me a "left traditionalist," which is just about right.) All this would suggest I'm in agreement with Brooks--and I am, to a point. But as always, the man doesn't think about the larger cultural field into which he's making his casual recommendations; he doesn't ask (or doesn't want to be seen as asking) whether people ought to marry and have families sooner, and why, and what the trade-offs are, especially for women (who, as Matt originally noted, are measured in his piece against men, but no such comparisons are made vice versa). The man's smart, but he's also the blue-states' self-appointed red-state jester; more messing with the heads of those who read him than actually thinking about things.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Jan 16, 2005 8:42:45 AM

Matt,

"For one thing, if someone would fix my potholes, I'd be very happy indeed."

I can sympathize.

"For another thing, the married-with-children Salvadorans I know all have wives who work. That seems to be the norm."

And you're probably correct. But that just goes towards my general point about this being, first and foremost, a question of prioritization (though obviously socio-economic opportunity and provision comes a close second); knowing the costs of raising a family on low-wage jobs, to they put off having children? Or do they live near family, so grandma or aunts can watch the kids? What sort of associations do they depend upon through the neighborhood, church, etc.? I'd never say it's easy, nor that the contemporary economy isn't making it harder (as Longman makes clear); I simply mean to challenge your original claim that you could support a family because you don't earn "nearly enough money." Depending on what your priorities are (where you choose to live, what you choose to do), you don't actually need that much money to be a decent parent. (Though again, it sure as hell is easier in a low-cost housing market, and the demographics prove it.)

"[Y]ou can't leave the men out of the picture here. Just asserting that women should do things differently is neither here nor there. As the title of my post says, 'it takes two.'"

Absolutely, and I don't disagree with what you say on that point, as I wrote to Dan above. Brooks isn't just culture-blind (without any sense or acknowledgement of whatever priorities he's assuming or urging), he's gender-blind (without any concern for trade-offs and costs). According to his piece, men will, of course, just keep on doing what they're doing, perhaps because he doesn't actually know any blue-collar men who do otherwise (that is, get jobs with the intention of immediately beginning a family). And so he, wrongly, measures women against men, without turning around and doing the opposite as well, as he should.

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox | Jan 16, 2005 8:56:23 AM

I agree with Matt's point that Brooks ignores men in his analysis, but what actually jumped out at me was this:

Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents.

I'm of the view that grad school follows a biological clock nearly as rigid as having kids. Some professional programs are well suited to 30-somethings with family, but if you want to do academic research with the aim of becoming a fulltime professor, you need to start early. This doesn't rule out someone doing ground-breaking work in their mid-40s and moving on to a career at a major university, but like having a baby, the odds are not in your favor.

In fact, the odds of getting the sort of academic position you were shooting for at the outset are so slim that grad school has to be viewed as one of life's riskier endeavors. Best to have a little youth and vitality left in you when you are forced to move on to plan B. I am not in favor of any social policy that would encourage prospective grad students to start at age 35.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 16, 2005 11:49:09 AM

Two other points about Brooks:

He gives daycare short shrift. There are plenty of two-income families that could afford to be one-income families (and save a lot on expensive daycare) but just don't want to. He concedes this point, but only in passing, and acts as if it is a very abnormal impulse. I think this betrays a conservative suspicion of anything hinting of Hillary Clinton's ("It takes a") village raising your kids instead of them being safely isolated in a (historically unusual) nuclear family.

I don't think that we as a society need to encourage fertility. If our retirement system is truly based on (1+r)P workers supporting P retirees, then we will eventually need to confront this problem. A more permanent solution is to use technology to increase productivity. Then we don't need an ever-growing working population to support retirees. The promise of pervasive automation has been elusive so far, but as far as I'm concerned, it is clearly a question of when, not if, the sheer quantity of people ceases to be a limiting factor on economic output.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 16, 2005 12:09:47 PM

Brooks Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents.

Shorter rebuttal: This about as reasonable as saying she could select a more flexible baseball team that recruits 35-year-old rookies.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 16, 2005 12:18:24 PM

I've been working for 30 years and I would say that women-returners (for the class has a name) force you to be more careful about your assumptions about a persons ability. Men usually have abilities somewhat related to their rank. This is not so much the case with women, particulary in the lower grades. Some female senior clerks are extemely able, much smarter than most men of similar rank. So it's not weird, but for arrogant young men, like I once was, it is a minefield.

Posted by: Jeb Bushell | Jan 16, 2005 1:07:33 PM

Brooks: Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.

So according to Brooks, women in their 20's lack the maturity and character to make a intelligent career choices, but they do have the maturity and character required to raise a child. Does Brooks really expect anyone to take him seriously when he writes stuff like this?

Posted by: Kenneth Almquist | Jan 16, 2005 6:01:12 PM

Paul,

Your argument about not needing to raise fertility makes superficial sense--but taken to the extreme (no one has children), declining fertility would obviously be a problem.

If the costs--including opportunity costs--of having children are so high that people who would otherwise be good parents and want to have children are choosing not to do so, that seems to me like a social problem that needs to be addressed, not necessarily by goverment, but by some type of rethinking of how we structure work, how people are connected in society, and government supports.

Particularly problematic, the opportunity costs of childrearing are greatest for those with the most talent and promising career potential--and I don't mean this from a eugenics perspective, but because those people with the most promising careers are also likely to play influential roles in society, and if they don't have children or have little sympathy for the issues facing parents, then we create a vicious cycle where the costs of parenting rise or supports fall, fertility falls, and existing children lose out in the process.

Society depends on people raising children, but we've created an oddly stratified world where a disproportionate amount of parenting goes on outside the populations that make policy and major economic decisions, and there's an almost total segregation between parenting adults and young, childless, professional singles.

Posted by: kewpie | Jan 17, 2005 4:21:10 PM

I got married at 20 (after graduating from Caltech) and turned down an MD/PhD program after deciding I wanted to have kids first. Unfortunately, after my husband's career finally took off, he walked out. Our fourth child was less than a year old.

I have now "rehabilitated myself" by becoming a nurse. I work in an IVF clinic, serving women who waited until their late 30's to have children and can't.

I have no idea what to tell my daughters.

Posted by: Shamhat | Jan 19, 2005 5:23:30 PM

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