Monday, December 31, 2018

Find parenting tough? Be glad you're not American

I have a news flash: being a grandad beats being a parent. Parenting is now a much tougher gig, whereas grandparenting is all care and no responsibility. And it’s a lot cheaper.

These thoughts are prompted by an article in the New York Times, in which Claire Cain Miller writes that parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.

“Over just a couple of generations,” she writes, “parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.”

(How does she know how much time mothers spend on their kids? Because the US government conducts regular surveys of how people use their time. We used to do so too, but have since decided we can’t afford to keep it up. Great decision, guys.)

“The amount of money parents spend on children, which used to peak when they were in high school, is now highest when they are under 6 and over 18 and into their mid-20s,” she writes.

The most momentous social change in my lifetime came sometime in the 1960s when Australia’s parents decided (as did parents in most advanced economies) that their daughters were just as entitled to a good education as their sons.

That simple attitudinal change has had huge economic and social ramifications, to which we and our governments are yet to fully adjust.

These days, most kids go to year 12, and most of those go on to uni. But girls outnumber boys in year 12 and at uni. When girls (and their parents and the taxpayer) have invested so much time and money in attaining a good education, it’s hardly surprising most of them want to put that education to work, so to speak, to gain the monetary reward but also to gain more intellectual (and social) stimulation than they would staying at home.

This “economic emancipation of women” has greatly increased the rate at which women participate in the (paid) labour force, making Australians a lot more prosperous, including by creating a lot of jobs for women performing services most women formerly performed for themselves at home, such as childcare.

The rise of the two-income family is one factor contributing to higher house prices. Governments have had to do a lot of work (and spend a lot of money) renovating the institutions of the labour market which, over the centuries, were designed exclusively to meet the needs of male breadwinners.

They’ve had to spend a lot more on high school and university education, legislate to ensure women (and later men) keep their places when they go on parental leave, receive at least some payment while on that leave, and receive big subsidies for a greatly expanded and heavily regulated system of childcare – in which childcare workers are better trained and much better paid.

Now there are strengthening efforts to ensure women get a much bigger share of the top jobs (with pay equal to the top men) – including in parliament.

Meanwhile, however, the nature of parenting has changed. Two-income families have more money to spend on fewer kids, and spend it they do – partly, I suspect, because mothers feel guilty about the time they don’t spend with their kids (I’m not saying they should, just that many do).

Parents, mainly mothers, put much time and money into taking their kids to after-school sporting and cultural training and (particularly in NSW) exam coaching. Many imagine sending their kids to expensive private schools will buy them a better education.

We’ve entered the era of “intensive parenting”, which brings us to Miller’s point that modern American mothers spend just as much time parenting as their stay-at-home mothers or grandmothers did. They just do different things.

As yet, however, it’s not nearly as bad in Oz as it is in the US. The gap between rich and poor has widened so much in America (with a bigger cost and status gap between government-funded universities and private Ivy-League colleges), that parents worry their kids won’t be able to live as well their parents did. In the States, parenting has become a lot more competitive.

Nor is it nearly as true here that children are most expensive before they get to school and after they leave it and head to uni. Our childcare is much more heavily subsidised than America’s. And our HECS-HELP “income-contingent loans” for uni tuition fees are much more concessional than what the Yanks do.

We have no need to worry about our kids being loaded up with HECS debt.