Kids as Status Symbols and "Competitive Birthing"

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NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday ran a piece about the current baby boom among the very well-off. To wit:

The newest status symbol for the nation's most affluent families is fast becoming a big brood of kids.

Historically, the country-club set has had the smallest number of kids. But in the past 10 years, the number of high-end earners who are having three or more kids has shot up nearly 30 percent.

Some say the trend is driven by a generation of over-achieving career women who have quit work and transferred all of their competitive energy to baby making.

They call it "competitive birthing."

I won't resist tooting my own horn, but NPR is about ten years behind the times in noticing this trend. Back in the 20th century (1997 to be exact), my article in slate.com, "Kids as Status Symbols" discussed this demographic shift.

So, you've got the beach house compound on Nantucket, the 63-foot Hinckley sailboat, the corporate jet, the nanny, and the gardener; and your stay-at-home spouse with the advanced academic degree heads up the local United Way campaign. What other acquisition might serve your high economic and social status? How about having some more kids?…

But recently I have noticed that many of my wealthier acquaintances, people who live in tonier suburbs like Potomac, Md., or Darien, Conn., are bucking the trend toward smaller families. Many have three or four kids. Some intriguing, if sketchy, data suggest that at the highest levels of wealth and income, the trend is toward larger, not smaller, families.

For example, Mendelsohn Research–a company that supplies consumer research to advertisers, advertising agencies, and publishing companies–offers some suggestive data. Mendelsohn's most recent annual survey shows that those households with children where the annual family income exceeds $250,000 are blessed with an average of 2.3 children currently at home. That is 0.5 kids more than the upper-middle-class average and the same number as the lowest census income category. And because the Mendelsohn data don't include kids who have left home–while the census data do–the number of children born in these very wealthy families could be even higher.

One other interesting figure comes from the very tiptop of the wealth scale. The households that compose the Forbes 400 richest Americans average 2.88 children. That's 1.08 kids more than the upper-middle class can afford.

These added kids provide many opportunities for status signaling. Wealthy parents can talk endlessly at the country club about the costs of Maine summer camps, high-school semesters abroad, little Andrew's sailing trophies, and what hunt Sarah rides with regularly. And of course, there are schools and universities. Did they prep at St. Albans or Choate? How well are they doing at Harvard, Yale, or Middlebury? Being able to provide lavishly for a large number of children shows that you've really got it made.

This is not to say that rich people don't love their kids. Rather, kids today are not only little bundles of joy but also are perhaps the ultimate symbols of worldly success and status. Perhaps we are now seeing a new social phenomenon–trophy kids.

It's interesting to contemplate what this trend might portend for the future of population growth. Generally, demographers have assumed that fertility rates will continue to decline as more of the planet's people become wealthier. Falling fertility would mean that world population could follow the trajectory of the U.N.'s low variant population projection which would result in a total population of about 5.5 billion in 2100. That's 1 billon fewer than the world's current population.

Now consider the case in which the U.S. economy grows by 3 percent per year until 2100. Assuming a population of 400 million, that would mean that average incomes would be over $500,000 per year in real dollars. The demographic inflexion point for more kids is around $250,000 per year. Could we be looking at a new baby boom after 2050?

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  1. There’s also the whole religious angle – it seems like many religious/social conservatives look at having large families as a cultural/political statement – the recent 17th member of the Duggar brood in Arkansas being the most absurd example of this phenomenon.

  2. Nah. What counts is the divorce angle. The rich get divorced a lot, and wifie #2 or #3 needs to prove that she’s a “real” wife, not just a bimbo, by knocking out a kid or two. Just look at the current Mrs. Fred Thompson. (Snark totally non-intentional.) At least, this is what all totally rich friends on the Cape tell me.

  3. Everyone who’s ever moved knows that when you move into a larger home, one with more storage space, you collect more things.

    Have you seen the houses they’re building in Potomac, MD and Darien, CT? Some of those things have 4500 square feet and six bathrooms!

    I think having lots of kids is just an extension of that.

  4. And maybe since large broods of kids will likely produce more incompetent rich kids, perhaps it will act to redistribute some of that wealth daddy’s been gripping so tightly.

  5. And maybe since large broods of kids will likely produce more incompetent rich kids,…

    …who will become liberal politicians. If the histories of the Rockerfeller and Kennedy families tell us anything, that is.

  6. I can’t help but think that it’s polygamy all over again. I have this vague notion that the Koran condones having multiple wives, but commands the husband not to take on a new wife unless he can afford it. Thus, the number of wives is a means of displaying one’s wealth in Islam.

    Polygamy is illegal here, but it’s the same principle: prove one’s prosperity by demonstrating how many dependents you can support.

  7. jebus, I live next to one of the towns you mention and went to one of the colleges mentioned as well. GET OUT OF MY HEAD, Bailey!!!!!

  8. ” And maybe since large broods of kids will likely produce more incompetent rich kids,…

    …who will become liberal politicians. If the histories of the Rockerfeller and Kennedy families tell us anything, that is.”

    Given the current incompetent rich kid in the whitehouse, I’d say “statist politician”, if not liberal… ;P

  9. Joe,
    Are you saying that the number of children in a family will expand to match the number of bathrooms?

    I would say that is ridiculous, but you may be on to something.

    Fortunately I only have 2. One for me and one for the house female.

  10. So will modern feminism and libero-statism go the way of the shaker religion? Interesting ideas but no staying power because no indoctriation of children in the ideals?

  11. How does one judge competitive birthing? Is it totally empirical like size of the brood, or are there some sort of style points that are awarded?

    “She really nailed that contraction, Clive!”

    “This is like watching a ballet, Margaret, rather than a delivery. Her water breaking was a revelation and will really impress the French judges.”

  12. Will we have to ban fertility drugs from this competition like we do with steroids and sporting events?

  13. American family size in the 20th century was an aberration, not otherwise seen during periods of affluence at any time of history.

    I’ve got 5 kids (I’m divorced because my ex has 6). I never considered them a “status symbol” — there were just people that I loved and was glad to have in my life.

    When the Zero Population eugenics people rant and rave about “squandering resources” and “too many people,” I offer to help them reduce the surplus population by one. They never accept my offer, which proves that it’s not a question of resources, it’s about who GETS the resources.

    Abortion has been readily accessible for 35 years, so it’s no surprise that the Zero Population ranks are beginning to thin — they’re not replacing themselves. This reduces their influence on society.

    The rest of us just kept having kids, shifting the numbers back toward normal.

  14. Fashions often spread from the rich to the poor via the middle, as everyone copies the slightly-better-off. So this trend could pass down the income scale.

    That said, the competitive birthers have a long way to go: Jane Austen once wrote about a friendy couple who had just had their eighteenth child : “perhaps they should consider seperate rooms”.

  15. J Golden Rockwell

    People didn’t start having smaller families because of “Zero Population eugenics people rant[ing] and rav[ing] about “squandering resources” and “too many people,”…”.

    They did it because (1) they could, due to improvements in contraception, (2) with the drop in child mortality rates one did not have to bear as many children in the hope that some would survive and (3) children in an industrial society are a drain on personal finances.

    Without the need to breed children as farm labor, children became an expense instead of an asset.

    Over the course of the first few decades of the 20th century the status of children went from economic asset to pet.

    Now apparently with expanding wealth some people are electing to have more pets.

  16. Isaac: That must be it. We wanted more pets.

    But that doesn’t explain why so many families in American cities during the early 1900s had 5 or 6 kids, after two or more generations away from the farm . . .

  17. That’d be a combination of custom (ie big families) and the biggy, lack of efficient birth control.

    Hey there are still pockets of fertility.

    After all, the Mormons I know (and I know quite a few) have huge families as do some of the Catholics I know.

    Family size for the general population has been falling since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

  18. In various places, I’ve seen a suggestion.

    Why not have the kids give a percentage of their yearly income to the parents? It encourages reproduction, and high levels of involvement and training of the kids while providing for the parents in their old age.

    Just goes to show that the ‘decline from the farm’ is not a law of nature.

  19. A lot of people, who grew up in small families or as only children, grew up longing for brothers and sisters. This longing was probably accentuated for people who grew up in neighborhoods with small numbers of kids available to play with, and several states away from any cousins or other relatives of similar age.

    Meanwhile, most people who grew up in big families are all in favor of having as many kids as they had brothers and sisters, and already have the management skills for such a family.

    People who _like_ having single kids or no kids are not going to reproduce as much; and hence, the custom will always tend to die out quickly in human history. This is a good thing, really. There’s an awful lot of people in Europe who don’t have _any_ cousins; once their grandparents and parents die off, they will be all alone in the world for the rest of their lives. (Friendship and acquaintance are nice bonds, but historically are not strong enough to help you much in old age.)

    Such singletons have really good reason to marry somebody who wants to have lots of kids. 🙂

  20. It’s better to see the rich having a lot of kids and “Being able to provide lavishly for a large number of children” (for whatever reason), than to see the poor having a lot of kids so they can get more welfare.

  21. WE’re dealing with apostate WASP’s here.

    After all, Episcopal Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said this:

    How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

    About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

    Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

    No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

  22. ***So will modern feminism and libero-statism go the way of the shaker religion? Interesting ideas but no staying power***

    Those ideas ain’t that interesting.

    Anyway, further evidence that the Chinese economy never will reach the size of the US’s, and that story of 2050 will be how the US economy is gapping away ever more from China’s while the US population quickly catches up to theirs.

    Ronald, why assume US population of only 400 million in 2100 AD? Is that assuming a catastrophic meteor strike? Because we’ll be at 400 million by 2035. Might be past 600 million by 2100. That’s just assuming less than 1% pop. growth a year, easy target.

  23. “Lamar | August 6, 2007, 11:12am | #
    And maybe since large broods of kids will likely produce more incompetent rich kids, perhaps it will act to redistribute some of that wealth daddy’s been gripping so tightly.”

    Rich people tend to produce more competent children, Al Gore Jr. and those who take degrees in useless nonsense like ethnic or gender studies, notwithstanding. They also give a lot more money to charity than poorer people. Your comment is void of truth.

    “Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?
    No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.”

    Who died and made self-righteous, smug-emitting episcopalians the boss of me? Please shove your neo-eco-Puritanism in your non-belief system.

  24. There is another factor that isn’t mentioned – the “blacksheep” or “screw up factor” If you only have 1-2 kids and they end up in rehab you will feel real foolish at the club when your friends brag about their kid at Yale. 3-4 kids, well, one is rehab isn’t that bad if the others are doing well.

    Actually this is really old genetic diversity stuff- just parents worried about a kid being eaten by a sabretooth 20,000 years ago instead of cocaine.

  25. “So will modern feminism and libero-statism go the way of the shaker religion? Interesting ideas but no staying power because no indoctriation of children in the ideals?”

    Why do you think the left took over public schools?

    Indoctrinate AND get paid for it.

  26. Far be it from me to speculate on the obvious, but might this have something to do with: 1) kids are fun, rewarding and the more you have the more you want; 2) kids ain’t cheap; and 3) the more money ya’ got, the more kids you can afford? Wealthy people have the same drives that everyone has, they just have more resources to apply. Sure, there are some that look at it as a competition, but I would bet that most just like kids.

  27. Why are people so bitter about others having more children? This is America, you are free to procreate or not. Why do some people here feel anger and resentment for those that choose to have more children? And the up side is that my children will help pay for your social security, so live it up!!

    As for Al Gore III, he will clean himself up and do something productive, he’s floundering just like his Dad did, and he will most likely turn out just fine.

  28. I agree with Clayton. I also agree with the rich screwup idea. Two of my very favorite Americans ever are the two sons of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt (Nelson Bunker Hunt [what a perfect WASPy name] and one whose name I forget). They managed to do something that, to my knowledge, no one in history has done before or since.

    They LOST $4B in actual resources!! It’s not like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet ‘losing’ value on a stock. They LOST a real $4B worth of stuff. Legitimately. It wasn’t stolen or confiscated or bombed to rubble. They tried to corner both the soybean and silver markets and LOST the money! That’s impressive.

    OTOH, Lamar Hunt preserved his inherited wealth and owned the Kansas City Chiefs NFL team and I believe he once owned the Kansas City Royals baseball team. At any rate, by having more than two kids, ol’ HL managed to get at least one non-idiot.

  29. I suspect that smaller numbers of kids are a occur at socioeconomic levels where a kid actually has an economic impact on the family.

    At the subsistence end of the scale,one more kid isn’t that much harder to feed, and you really aren’t spending large sums of money on fancy clothes, toys and education. So you see really poor families with a bunch of kids.

    In the middle levels, those large sums really have an impact, so you see no, one, or two kids.

    At the top level, the marginal cost of a new kid is decimal dust, so why the hell not?

  30. Jorg–the other Hunt brother was William Herbert. And yes, their brother Lamar turned out just fine. He lived here in Dallas, and when he passed away a while back, I don’t recall anything but kind words being said about him.

  31. I think part of it might be strategic business planning, too. If you have three or four kids, you have a good chance that at least one of them will be competent enough to take over the reigns of your company. Many fortunes are made in one generation and lost by the next.

  32. It’s refreshing to see affluent white people having large numbers of children.

  33. Well, now I know what to tell my childless sister if, upon my becoming pregnant with my fifth child, she decides once again to lecture me on birth control: I’m just being trendy! 🙂

    Seriously, while children are a joy, somehow I doubt people who have more children and leave them with a nanny while they go volunteer for United Way all day long are enjoying those children much. I’m only working 20 hours a week and I already feel the diminishment in the enjoyment of my kids. If they’re not raising the kids by hand, I vote for the kids being status symbols.

  34. You might find this post from the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog interesting:

    Trophy Kids & “Competitive Birthing
    Tom Panelas

  35. The decline in fertility began even before the Industrial Revolution hit. Here’s some data: in the U.S., in 1800, there were about 1,300 white children for every 1,000 white women aged 20-44. In 1850, there were about 900. And in 1850 the U.S. was still 80% rural. The decline continued to about 400 in 1940. The “baby boom” saw a temporary rise to about 600; by 2005, the number for all races was about 400.

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  40. baby berthing become a status symbol ,so ridiculous. the competitive nature of human being revealed totally

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