Kids as Status Symbols and "Competitive Birthing"


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, "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?