It wasn’t too long ago when we could look at popular media and could tell instantly what class someone was by the size of their family. Many of us have seen the classic, WASP-ish, upper middle class family photos of two parents, two kids. A family restrained in taste, manners, and also family size. We’ve also seen the black and white photos of families from the Dust Bowl, parents (or sometimes just parent) swarmed with a litter of kids. The message being that the poor had no self-control or intelligence to manage their household size. This idea of family size being a marker of social class has been around for centuries and like many longstanding ideas they go through phases. Only a generation or two ago, smaller families were seen as a mark of class and taste. They were the trend. But now, the trend has flipped. The rich and wealthy are coming out with supersized families, larger than ever before while lower income families are shrinking or just not having children at all.
Families that once traditionally prided themselves on having just a few children as a mark of class and breeding are now increasing their family size by leaps and bounds. Suddenly two is the new three, and three is the new four. In New York City, one of the most notoriously expensive cities to live in, there has been a rise in demand for 3-4 bedroom apartments in the city. While the country as a whole has been experiencing its lowest population growth since the Great Depression, New York families have been blooming. On the Upper East Side, 49% of all families with a household income of $100,000 or more had two or more children in 2000. In 2011, that number rose to 59%. Many are finding children as a different form of status symbol. Having four kids means you can afford four day care tuitions, four different after school activities, four dentist appointments. Some might say it’s really the A-list celebrities fueling this huge brood trend but ultra wealthy but relatively anonymous families are also taking part. Lisa Carnoy, a Bank of America executive who made headlines for making BoA $19 billion in a stock sale, is a mother of four. Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO for Teach For America, is also a mother of four. Courtney and Robert Novogratz, the couple behind the NYC-based interior design firm Sixx Design have seven children. Instead of the Aspen home or the personal yacht, a fifth or even sixth child is the new status symbol for the rich.
So why the change?
This is a huge socio-economic change that’s happening so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly one reason. Part of it can be attributed to the changing attitudes towards children. Children are more valued, understood, and respected as individuals than ever before. People are taking more time to understand child psychology and recognizing the impact it can have on the formation of a future adult. Parents today find a different relationship with their children that can feel more connected and meaningful than perhaps parents of previous generations. According to Pew Research, Millennial parents are more likely than Gen X or Boomer parents to say that parenting is enjoyable and rewarding. And parents with money can afford to invest more of their time to cultivate such relationships.
The education and empowerment of women also plays a role. While women who are educated but lower income are stuck within the confines of a lower income bracket and therefore have lower spending power, educated and wealthy women feel more empowered and less restricted by the roles of the home. They are financially able to hire help like nannies or cooks and feel confident and comfortable doing so. They can afford to have the best of both worlds—career and home—which makes raising multiple children while not easy but definitely easier.
So if the upper middle class and the ultra wealthy families are nearly doubling or tripling in size, how much are lower income families shrinking by?
Short answer: by a lot.
Fertility as a whole has been on the decline across the globe since the end of WWII. Some countries, such as Japan and Korea, are facing huge population crises because of the severe lack of new babies being born every year. While the US hasn’t reached such levels, we have definitely seen a sharp decline in family size. By the mid 1970s in the US, 40% of mothers had reached the end of their childbearing years had given birth to four or more children. Now a similar share (41%) of mothers end their childbearing years with just two children. The number of only children have jumped as well. Mothers age 40-44 having only one child has doubled from 11% in 1976 to 22% today.
The biggest factor in why so many seem to be choosing to have less children is, simply put, money—children are expensive and they can’t afford it. Worker wages have been stagnant for decades now. According to the Pew Research Center, after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978. What wage gains there have been have been mostly flowed to the highest paid tier of workers. Since 2000, usual weekly wages have risen 3-4.3% among workers earning in the lowest quarter. But among people in the top tenth of distribution, wages have risen a cumulative 15.7%, nearly five times the usual weekly earnings of the bottom tenth. This is while cost of living has risen steadily every year.
Wage stagnation and economic insecurity is also the reason abroad for many countries also facing a population crisis. In Japan, for example, many people are putting off children and even marriage because of economic insecurity. In 2016, for the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than one million births as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. Japan currently has the largest over 65 population amongst first world countries and yet is not meeting the minimum birth quota to replenish this population. But young people who should be having those babies all point to wage and job insecurity. Right now over 40% of the Japanese workforce is ‘irregular,’ meaning they don’t work for companies where they have stable jobs for their whole careers. Instead they piece together temporary and part time jobs with low salaries and no benefits. And in a country where men are still expected to be the breadwinners, many young people are finding the ideas of marriage and families impossible to realize.
In the US, for many working class and lower income families, even dual income households find it difficult to sustain a family. Adding a child or two could be financially crippling. And while wealthy educated women can have both career and family, most educated, lower income women cannot afford both. And when forced to choose, these days many women are choosing career. And a lot of these people who are choosing not to have families are finding different venues to express their need to nurture or care.
It may seem silly but you can see this alternative choice to family growing in joke names such as people calling themselves a “dog mom/dad.” Among millennials, it’s also become popular now to become a “plant mom/dad.” Millennials can still be moms and dads but they are fulfilling those roles with objects that are much more affordable and less fragile like plants and pets. And this is echoed in the booming plant and pet industries. Pet expenditure is up from roughly $20 billion in 1994 to over $65 billion in 2017, thanks in large part to Millennials. And houseplant sales have nearly doubled over the past three years to $1.7 billion, with many of the consumers being Millennials.
It’s interesting to see the cycle of families as time goes on. Perhaps one day, it’ll be trendy again to have only a few children. After all, right now the growth in wealthy families is partly due to the boom in wealth growth for that upper earning population. If we do nothing to address climate change and the effects of it truly begin to take more immediate hold (even more immediate than it already is), perhaps it’ll become trendy for smaller families as an argument for smaller carbon footprints. But for now, the attention shouldn’t be paid to how these wealthy families are raising these kids but why they can afford to when so many others cannot.
The current population crisis right now points to a growing divide among classes. Everything is becoming pay to play but without giving a huge portion of the population fair pay. Wealthy families and their oversized broods are not enough to repair the declining population rates. We must equalize it for everyone if we want to ensure a bright and steady future. A declining fertility rate is one symptom of a much larger economic problem. We must work to address stagnant worker wages, cost of living, and taxation to properly correct this shift. Without it, the US is sure to find itself scrambling to create its next generation from a sparse and scant number.