Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Children, Education, and Status

In my previous post I argued that a culturally transmitted change was responsible for the fertility decline: education. The fertility decline is not simply a price effect within an existing context, though children are certainly more expensive than they have ever been, but rather a cultural transformation that changed the relationship between parents and children. 

My most controversial claim is that children used to be valuable, in the way that slaves and farm animals are valuable. A line of evidence against this is that children in some hunter-gatherer and farming societies did not, on net, contribute positive economic value to their families in terms of material production. In "Economics in the Family Way," Ted Bergstrom relates a few examples of studies of hunter-gatherers and peasant farmers; Peruvian and Paraguayan hunter-gatherer children consumed more food than they caught up to age 18, and the same was true of peasant agriculturalists in contemporary India and Egypt. The rate of return on the "investment" in children, measured by their providing for parents' retirement, was only 1%. In some societies, measured by material consumption and production, children appear to have been a very poor investment indeed!

However, not all studies agree - methodology strongly influences the result, and populations vary in terms of their children's helpfulness and self-sufficiency. In many populations studied, children make significant and even net positive economic contributions, and the upward wealth flow is measurable even in merely material terms. Karen Kramer summarizes the many studies that have investigated whether children "help" in "Children’s Help and the Pace of Reproduction: Cooperative Breeding in Humans," and reports that Maya subsistence agriculturalist children produced more than half of their consumption by the age of seven for boys and six for girls, and produced the equivalent of their consumption at sixteen for boys and fifteen for girls. Though children are not very productive compared to adults, they are cheap - they have a very low opportunity cost for work compared to adults, and are expected to work long hours even with low productivity. Kramer reports that agriculturalist children spend many more hours per day working than hunter-gatherer children, and pastoralist children most of all. Hunter-gatherer children frequently become self-sufficient at a very young age. Farm children cannot become self-sufficient so early, and therefore need more from their parents, but their parents demand more from them in return.

But the impact of children in terms of material production compared to consumption, and on net wealth, is not the main driver of fertility; children were valuable in other ways, and mass education interfered with all of them, not just their economic contribution. To return to the central analogy, slaves are valuable for many reasons besides their ability to produce more than they consume: they may help with childcare, provide companionship, and serve as status goods (from the point of view of peers). The type of companionship slaves provide is relevant: they are low-status beings, and with their servile behavior they provide the owner with constant reminders that he is powerful and high-status. A slave of this type's mere presence represents a type of consumption on the part of the owner, similar to the consumption of entertainment.

The practice of apprenticeship and child servitude suggests that many children even in complex societies contributed positive economic value at a young age. Much of the value that they contribute, though, is social: they make parents (or other adults) feel both needed and comparatively high in status. Submissive, servile behavior, instilled by harsh treatment and often violence, likely made them more pleasing for parents to be around. Having low-status underlings around seems to be a common human desire, expressed in a celebrity's "entourage" and in pet ownership. This human trait may even be relevant to the formation of complex hierarchies. In a sense, children used to provide a social service; education deprives them of most of their ability or willingness to engage in these behaviors.

What do children help with? They are primarily useful for the work of having a large family. Among the Maya, Kramer reports:

If children produced nothing, Maya parents would have to work 2.5 times as hard as they do to maintain their children’s consumption between the 20th and 33rd years of the family life cycle. Were it not for the economic contributions of children, parents in their fourth and fifth decades would have to increase their work effort by 150%, each parent working more than 16.5 hours a day (real-time hours).

Children's work makes it possible for parents to raise large families. This may be even more true among agriculturalists and pastoralists than hunter-gatherers; among a group of Pacific Island agriculturalists, the Ifaluk, Paul Turke found that having a daughter (or better, two in a row) increased the completed fertility of women compared to those who had sons first; this was not the case among !Kung foragers. The nature of available work and the gender division of labor accounts for the difference; Kramer finds that the percentage of childcare provide to infants by their sisters ranged from 10% to 33% in the available studies. In no case, however, did care from fathers account for a higher percentage of an infant's time than care from sisters.

But there is another way in which children used to contribute: they gave a parent his status as a free adult, and marriage and children were the only path to free adulthood. In The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe, John Boswell notes that in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Syriac, and many medieval languages, terms for "child," "boy," or "girl" were frequently used to mean "slave" or "servant." He reminds us that only a few hundred years ago, only a small proportion of the population married and raised children; the rest remained under someone else's control, often as servants. Similarly, in the Nakaya language, a "child" is someone who has not yet had children; one does not obtain adult status until having children of one's own. Having children was formerly the only path to achieving adult status; education changed all that, providing a new means by which to measure status and changing the status relationship between parents and children.

In summary, children used to be:
  • hard working and helpful, especially at the work of raising a large family;
  • self-sufficient at an early age;
  • submissive to adults;
  • the only path to adult status
Education, specifically Western education promoting democratic values, interferes with children's work and their parents' expectations for their work. It makes them more dependent on their parents, and makes them less likely to be servile and submissive to parents. And education itself provides an alternate means of achieving adult status other than having children. In the presence of these conditions, the demand for children is apparently low.


  1. The impact that technology is having on the economy, will likely lead to even lower birth rates. 30 will soon become the new 18, as the age children leave home. There simply are not enough jobs being created to employ all of the college graduates every year. This will put even more financial strain on parents.

  2. Sister Y, I agree with the Nayaka definition of children! But having accepted the definition for children, children's rights are better formulated in the West!

  3. I think the 1% return on investment comment is interesting. It might be informative to look at alternative options for investment. I would imagine subsistence farmers have very few places where they can generate better returns.

    1% ROI over 25 years to ensure you have a caretaker in old age is better than 0% ROI with no old age insurance. The subsistence farmer is effectively creating a social safety net program.

  4. The idea of being childless is now receiving coverage in that most conservative of papers, London's Financial Times:


  5. We are all here because our mothers were irresponsible sluts.

  6. To continue on the previous thread, here are some of the problems I see with your theory:

    1. I really don't see how it fits the historical data on which countries had the earliest decline in fertility. (To give the link again for reference: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/09/fertility-fall-causes.html)

    Would you actually argue that the factors you describe manifested themselves in France decades before England, and in England decades before Germany?

    2. How would you explain the high fertility that persisted in Anglo-Saxon societies until at least the mid-to-late 19th century, through the ages when in these societies it was expected that children should leave the parents' home as soon as they were old enough to provide for themselves? (And, in addition, where easy exit to the colonies and the frontier made any real patriarchal authority over anyone but pre-adolescent children impossible.)

    At the very least, if your theory is true, these factors should have implied dramatically lower Anglo-Saxon fertility in the 18th and 19th centuries relative to places with strong extended families and no easy exit. But that wasn't the case, as far as I know.

    3. How do you explain the post-WW2 baby boom? It certainly didn't come at a time when any of the factors you mention were weakening.

  7. if this is a true reflection why is there so much over population?

  8. Simply put, birthrates decline when the status or women is increased.

    For an interesting story read...

    "... the Church was not only the biggest feudal landowner with an average 20-30% of all fertile land in the whole of Europe as Church property, but therefore also suffered the severest losses in income from the losses in serfs due to the plague. Hence the Church's intent to repopulate its estates with serfs. [Basically, serfs at that time led a life of slavery].

    So we are no longer surprised to find that as early as 1360 authorities began to execute "wise women" and midwives in their villages [46]. We now understand what the Inquisitors had in mind when they wrote:

    "No one is more dangerous and harmful to the Catholic Faith than the midwives," [47]

    preaching that procreation is a duty ordained by God, where the Catholic Faith simply meant the dominating position of the Church in medieval economy. [The general populace] considered birth control as "good" or "white" magic, just as people today do not want an unlimited number of children. For this reason midwives and "wise women," prominent in the authorities' witchcraft accusations, seldom appear to have been accused of being witches by the populace (who considered them their only source of medical help)."

  9. Interesting thesis, though I still think this underestimates the pricing effect. It is not only that having children is expensive in the direct financial sense you described in the first article, but more importantly the opportunity cost of having children skyrocketed in modern societies. I think this is the driving effect - fueled by the same root cause you identified: education (and technology - fueled by and fueling education)

    Acquiring a slave-factory, as you charmingly put it, vs. the current state, definitely makes more economic sense, but apart from that it leaves me sort of unimpressed as to what is "better". Fortunately, it is the economic effects that decide on the direction of the arrow of time not me.

  10. Every economist knows this, even me. See my article "Fewer, Richer, Greener" at https://www.cfainstitute.org/learning/products/publications/faj/Pages/faj.v68.n6.2.aspx Caution, neoliberal ideology with a Whiggish view. Please don't kill me. Larry


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