Rise of the super-family

Is there any room left at the top?
April 24, 2013
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.

Women often suspect that men prefer to marry women much less intelligent than themselves. If that were true, they could certainly have gone on doing so—but they haven’t. They want to date, and marry, women like them. You can see this clearly from the US Ivy League, where colleges were strong-armed into admitting women by their own students’ preferences.

As recently as the late-1960s, Harvard, Yale and Princeton still lacked a single female undergraduate. Their leaders found it increasingly difficult to justify—and besides, being single-sex was bad for business. They were losing many of their best applicants to co-educational rivals. Alpha men, it turned out, wanted to meet, date, and eventually marry highly educated women like themselves. Alpha women were similarly keen to meet their counterparts; as Oxbridge men’s colleges progressively turned co-educational, the women’s colleges bled top female students.

You can see what has been happening if you look at British politicians. It is not that long ago that John Major was prime minister; but Norma was the last of the traditional Downing Street wives. Since then, the first families of Downing Street have been two-career graduate partnerships, involving women who were lawyers, designers, journalists, senior civil servants and company directors.

But it is not just assortative mating that marks off the elite. Once married, the graduate professionals are much more likely to stay that way. Among the well-off, intact marriages are still the norm.

It’s easy to miss this widening gap between elite marriage patterns and those of everybody else. The media reports the break-ups and the huge settlements of the rich and famous. And we also, most of us, know couples where one would love to marry and the other won’t (the latter is usually male).

Nonetheless, the statistics are clear. The majority of elite men marry, and marry women very like themselves. Graduate professionals have divorce rates that are much lower than those of other groups. Right across the developed world, graduate fathers are overwhelmingly likely to be married to the mothers of their children at the time their children are born. And this remains true in societies marked by soaring rates of illegitimacy.

In the European Union as a whole, more than a third of all births in 2009 were to unmarried women. In France, it is over 50 per cent, in the UK it is the upper-40s. In the US, the overall figure is about 40 per cent. But less than 5 per cent of births to white American graduate mothers were extramarital in 1965 and that figure remains unchanged.

British graduates are more likely to have children out of wedlock than Americans, but only one British graduate mother in 30 is single and living alone when she gives birth. Among the cohabiting parents, about 85 per cent of graduate fathers and mothers are married. In the US, among people in their late-twenties and thirties, divorce rates are around twice as high for non-graduates as for graduates.

You wouldn’t guess this from contemporary language. “Partner” is now the useful, but also the politically correct, non-judgemental word for any long-term relationship. What is striking is how many people now use it even when referring to their own legal spouse. But look at what elites do, not what they say.

The posterboy for marriage as just-a-lifestyle-choice has for many years been Scandinavia. Social scientists describe a Nordic model and the eminent Danish sociologist, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, claims that “in Scandinavia co-habitation is now de facto the same as marriage.” Not according to the data, it isn’t. In Sweden (where the overall marriage rate is not, by modern standards, particularly low) the highly educated are almost twice as likely to marry as the less educated, and less likely to divorce. As a Swedish friend remarked, “it’s nonsense to claim that there’s no difference between marriage and co-habitation. I mean, the King got married.” Today, western societies boast a phalanx of affluent, graduate two-career families, determined to advance the interests of their children. And while elite families don’t love their children any more or less than anyone else, their increasingly distinctive family lives put them at a huge advantage.

As recently as the late-1970s, having a first child after the age of 30, let alone 35, was highly unusual for women of any class. For the bulk of society, it still is. In Britain about half of all women who were born here and do not have qualifications are mothers by the age of 22. Other, more educated but non-graduate women also have their children at what used to be a normal age for everyone, with peak child-bearing between 25 and 29.

But live among today’s graduate classes and you might get the impression that no one even contemplates pregnancy until 30 looms. In the UK and France, the proportion of graduates having a baby before 30 has halved in the last few decades. Among American female graduates, the years between age 30 and 35 are now the child-bearing peak. The pattern is international, but only for mothers with full bachelors degrees.

By the time elite families have children, they are a good deal richer than other parents. These are, for the most part, families headed by two adults already well into their careers. Most will avoid the financial fallout of a split. Two really can live more cheaply than one.

The last quarter century has been a period of growing inequality in many developed countries. After the Great Compression of the mid-20th century, inequality has grown again, most markedly in the US, pretty markedly in the UK, but in a lot of other countries too. The ones we notice are the super-rich. We are shocked and infuriated by million-pound bonuses. But it’s not just 1 per cent cleaning up, while the other 99 per cent do badly. People in the top 15 per cent, people in jobs that today bring in upward of £45,000, have been doing pretty nicely too, both male and female.

Inequality among men has grown. But inequality among women has also been growing fast—and on many measures even faster. The number of women with seriously large incomes has exploded; gender gaps have vanished among young professionals. The much-cited male-female gap in average pay exists because so many women are in low-paid occupations—care, retail and cleaning—often work part-time, and often drop out of work for years when their children are small.

Childcare costs are extremely high in many countries but, for professionals, paying them is conceivable. Two-career families are the main users of formal childcare, of nurseries as well as nannies. Having money to start with makes it easier to stay in well-paid employment and having money makes it easier to help your children. Elite families typically score in having not just two good salaries but two degrees to draw on during their own children’s education, and two sets of useful contacts.

The tendency for children born into the top fifth of the income scale in the developed world to be top fifth as adults is high, and surprisingly uniform. At this level it’s the same, generation to generation, in Denmark as in the USA, and slightly higher in Sweden than in Britain. (Where Scandinavians are more socially mobile is in movement in and out of the middle.) Elite families are doing a good job of keeping their children prosperous.

Yet these parents are also very anxious, and rightly so. Competition is international. Formal education is ever more important as a gateway to the sunny uplands, and finely tuned CVs are passports to the right schools, the right colleges, the right shortlist. Surveying the globe, families are not sure if anything will be enough.

One result is among the more intriguing findings of contemporary social research. Even though far more mothers are employed than in the post-war decades, the average time spent by parents on active childcare has increased markedly since the 1960s. It has done so for all parents, but it has increased most of all for the most educated.

This is not about being in the house while a child plays video games or (heaven forbid) wanders up the street in search of a friend. It is time when doing something with the child is the main activity. University-educated working mothers in the US and UK, for example, have been doubling their active time. Fathers in all social groups have also increased theirs, but graduate fathers have done so almost twice as much as others. And these are not small time commitments. Graduate mothers in Australia spend an average of two hours a day more on direct childcare than mothers with no upper secondary qualifications, even though they are also more likely to be working full time.

Some of the change may be because we won’t let kids roam free any more. But a lot of it is surely anxiety about their futures, not their present safety. Children need to do well from an early age, parents conclude. If activities, chauffeuring, tutoring come at the expense of leisure time, then that is the price that today’s parents are determined to pay.

In the late 20th century, university education exploded across the globe. A degree brings large benefits in terms of earnings and opportunities, and many jobs have become graduate only. However, in key respects, education is a positional good, meaning that its value lies partly in how it is perceived by others, and there lies the root of professional parents’ angst. It is not just about gaining a skill, as it is when you learn to drive. It is just as much about telling the world, through your educational success, whether you are better than other people, or worse; whether you are cleverer or not so bright. It is about competing. And the best way to signal your quality is to get a degree with a brand attached.

As higher education has boomed, top universities have maintained their grip on routes to the top. Take the year 2010. Oxford-educated David Cameron became prime minister. Cambridge-educated Nick Clegg became his deputy. They faced, across the chamber, the winner of the 2010 contest for leadership of the Labour party. This contest had involved five candidates and every one of them was a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge. In the same year, Elena Kagan became a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Her confirmation meant that the nine-member Court had three female justices for the first time. It was also the first time the Court was made up entirely of justices who were educated at either Yale or Harvard law schools.


When universities were few and far between, a university and a top university were much the same thing. But today, name recognition matters ever more. In addition, the more global the economy, the more brand recognition comes from international sources and, increasingly, international league tables. Top families have known this for years. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, was leader of Germany for over 15 years. He was the architect of German reunification, the personification of German tastes in food, drink and holidays. He also sent one son to Harvard and one to MIT.

As the world globalises, as English becomes ever more dominant as a global language but wealth moves east, more and more families have the resources to back their children’s futures. And they are mostly in a state of stress. The very scope of higher education on offer creates a winner-take-all situation. Our brains can only cope with a limited number of name brand universities; everyone wants their children to go to one of those.

This makes families everywhere education-obsessed. Houses cost significantly more in the catchment area of a good state school. Out-of-school tutoring is booming across the world; what was once seen as a Japanese eccentricity, or even monstrosity, is now a big UK growth industry. But the families that can really spend on education are the elite, the families whose joint incomes let them buy the most expensive commodity of all—other people’s time. Including the time of top teachers.

International boarding schools and top UK public schools cost upwards of £30,000 a year and this can stretch most families’ finances. The strains are also particularly clear among the independent day schools of the big cities, where so many two-career families live. In New York, the competition to get one’s children into the right (private) nursery leading to the right (private) kindergarten, and on through to high school and a top university, leaves parents exhausted and desperate. In the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 43 per cent of pupils now attend independent schools, as do half the white children within the city boundaries of Chicago. Families that can’t afford the best private schools, but can afford a move to a leafy suburb, do so.

Elite parents worry about anorexia, drinking and drugs; but the vast majority of their children sign up to the rules for doing well in life. It’s not just that they clock up the grades their parents are paying for. The real evidence comes from something else: the age when they first have sexual intercourse, for both boys and girls. It is stark and simple. The worse you are doing academically, the more likely you are to have underage sex, and the higher your grades the more likely you are to start having sex only after age 20. Graduates make up for it later, but at 16, or 18, academic grind can have a big influence on your chances of success in life. Ambitious kids wait.

All these changes mean that family income today has a stronger influence on whether you go to university than it did a few decades ago. That is because it is now more or less automatic that a child from a professional family gets a degree; lower down the income scale, it is still only the most academic. And of course it’s not just whether you go to university, it is also where.

The most dramatic example of family influence is the favoured access that American private colleges give to legacy students. These are the children of alumni who are, in turn, a major financial support for any private institution. At Harvard and Princeton, legacies have three or four times as much chance of an offer as other comparable candidates. Europeans, when they hear about this, are deeply shocked. But the substance of European advantage is not so different.

In France a very few super-academic secondary schools, in high-income neighbourhoods populated by city super-families, dominate entry to the Grandes Écoles that train the French elite. In the UK, successive governments have put enormous pressure on top universities to increase the number of students they accept from state schools. But their success has been very limited. It is not clear, in any case, that social justice and social mobility are greatly served if the main beneficiaries of government targets are professional families in suburbs and university towns with good state schools. For the children of the poor, the barriers emerge long before university entry.

In this family-driven society of ours, what of the future? Truthfully, more of the same.

When Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy, he was not just coining a new word, but writing a satire. The book ends with revolution, as the unselected rise up against a state run on strictly meritocratic lines. Any serious change in today’s university entry patterns, any serious attack on top schools, would require a revolution in its turn. No government can rule against its elites for more than a very short time. And all the trends that are drawing today’s super-families away from the pack look set to continue into the near future.

There is, however, one counterweight. Many high-earning professionals don’t have children, and elite families are mostly small. Top people don’t have many children, in part because rearing elite children is a super expensive affair. So even with assortative marriage, even with intensive parenting, and all the right education, there will, still, be some room at the top. But only some.