Is there any room left at the top?by Alison Wolf / April 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
The two-career family © Phil Disley
In the old developed world, where middle incomes are stagnant, today’s race goes to the super-family. It’s a throwback in many ways. It is tight knit, nuclear, husband-wife-and-kids, but with a twist: two successful, two highly educated, two well-paid parents. And it is a key reason why the top section of society is drawing away from the rest.
The 1970s were the start of it. It was when educated women penetrated every part of the professional labour market. They also started to take less and less time out of work when they had children, and began to earn serious money. Across the rich countries of the OECD, the group of leading developed economies, women now hold half of the “Class I” professional and managerial jobs. These are the jobs of the top sixth of society by income: the jobs of the elite.
This can be hard to square with the flow of stories about unequal pay for women. But highly educated women now have work lives that are very like those of highly educated men, and increasingly different from other women’s. I became aware of this newly divided sisterhood some years ago and wrote about it in an article for Prospect. But only now is it clear how distinctive elite families have also become.
People at the top marry among themselves. Of course, people have always tended to marry their own kind, a process known as assortative mating. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy were the fairytale exception to this rule of the marriage market, which Jane Austen observed so acidly. But assortative mating has increased of late.
Partly, this is because women are now more educated. In the past, male doctors couldn’t expect to marry female doctors as hardly any existed. Male business executives couldn’t marry female ones for the same reason. They married nurses and secretaries instead (many of them very able). But that isn’t the whole story. Increases in assortative mating go well beyond what you would expect statistically from the rise in female graduation rates. Like is marrying like to an increasing degree.