The social scientist as advice columnist

For those of you who do, dabble in, or devour social science, I have an odd scenario that I want you to take seriously. Imagine that you receive an anonymous request from an American teenager that reads as follows:

I’m a young woman, and I’ve decided that what I really want is to have my own children, the more the better. More than that, though, I really want to have children who will end up being popular, good-looking, sexy, successful, rich adults—the kinds of adults that other adults will really want to have sex and have families with. Being realistic, what should I do?

Imagine that you don’t know whether she’s rich or poor, in a big city or a small town, good looking or plain, athletic, nerdy, brilliant, boring. You know nothing other than what she wrote above. And imagine that you resist the urge to refer her to a qualified therapist. That is, take the request at face value and actually try to give a data-based answer without letting your personal feelings get in the way. What should you say?

Here’s my shot at the basics. As a first move, I’d separate it into three questions: How do women have lots of kids? How do women have kids who are likely to become physically attractive, sexy adults? And how do women have rich kids? None of these questions is particularly hard to answer, assuming we’re just trying to say, in general, how a young American woman can make it statistically more likely to have things turn out this way.

How women have lots of kids

This one is quite easy: Women who have lots of their own kids usually start having kids when they’re pretty young. In general, women these days are in their peak able-to-make-their-own-babies years in their 20s. By age 39 or 40, their likelihood of having their own children has dropped to about half of its peak, and by age 44 it’s pretty rare for a woman to be able to have her own biological children. (Women can still get pregnant, just not typically with their own eggs—a large portion of modern stories of women having children past their early 40s involve in vitro fertilization using younger women’s eggs.)

The typical American woman over the past century who had 4 or more children had her first at age 19; the typical woman who ended up with 3 children started at age 21. Sure, we can point out that it’s possible for women to have lots of kids after waiting longer. But our task here is to lay out the path that is typical, that is most likely. And, for women, the path to lots of kids usually begins with a pregnancy in her teens to early 20s.

For most women, if they’re just trying to have a lot of kids—without considering more—it’s a simple recipe: Start having unprotected sex, get pregnant, have the baby, give your body some time to recover, and repeat. Most young women are capable of producing children. Most young men are happy to help out, if all we’re talking about is sex. Problem solved.

How women have sexy kids

The next part is how to have kids that are likely to grow up to be attractive, sexy adults—the kinds of people other people really want to hook up with. For women, there’s more good news. The on average, in general, statistical answer is not complicated: When she’s having sex that is likely to get her pregnant, she should do so with attractive, sexy guys from attractive, sexy families. Good looks, after all, have a lot to do with genes (and so does sociosexuality). People who are good looking and sexy are more likely to have good-looking, sexy offspring. It isn’t a guarantee, of course. But, again, we’re giving advice on the plan that makes these things more likely than not.

Combine the “how to have lots of kids” plan for women with the “how to have sexy kids” plan for women, and it’s something like: Start having unprotected sex early with guys who are sexy, get pregnant, have the baby, give your body some time to recover, and repeat. Mission accomplished.

If this were a movie, I’d now say something unintentionally foreboding, like: “Huh, this isn’t going to be so hard after all.” And right then, of course, all hell would break loose.

How women have rich kids

The first thing to note in figuring out how women have rich kids is that these women (with rich kids) tend to be rich themselves. There’s more to it, of course, but let’s start here: Statistically speaking, who are the wealthier women?

There are at least three big predictors of women’s average wealth outcomes these days: education, marriage, and work. If we’re talking about the typical situation—ignoring the improbable, just-get-lucky scenarios—wealthier women have a lot of education, they marry guys with a lot of education, the guys work full time pretty much constantly from college to retirement, the women work full time for some relatively long period of their adult lives, and they stay married.

Here are some simplified numbers. If we want to predict an American woman’s yearly household income while she’s in her 40s, this gets us in the typical range. Start with $29,000. Add $37,000 if she’s married. Add another $29,000 if either she or her husband has a 4-year college degree, and add another $29,000 if they both have college degrees. Voila. The result is in the neighborhood of that group’s median household income. The lowest group—at $29,000—are unmarried women without college degrees. The highest group—at $124,000—are college-educated women married to college-educated men.

Of course, degrees and spouses don’t magically produce higher incomes; they typically do so through work. People with more education are more likely to be employed and they usually make more money when they are employed. The kinds of men who get married also tend to be the kind of guys who stay employed full time in higher paying careers.

Further, it isn’t just getting married that produces wealth, but staying married. Never-married and divorced women in their 40s, for example, have yearly household incomes that don’t differ very much on average. Divorced women are more likely than the never-married to have some support from exes, but this is frequently offset by the fact that divorced women are also more likely to have children, which is associated with lower work rates and less income. Over time, the real economic payoff for women from marriage occurs when they stay married for a long time, taking advantage year after year of the lower costs of a shared home and building up joint assets.

So how does a woman have richer kids? A big part of the answer is that she should get lots of education, work, get married to a guy with lots of education who will work, have fewer children, and stay married. Unfortunately, our earlier advice on how women can have lots of kids and sexy kids now gets derailed utterly by a range of serious contradictions.

One problem: Women who have lots of kids tend to start having them in their teens and early 20s. But women who get lots of education and marry guys with lots of education rarely have children in their teens and early 20s.

A second problem: Women with lots of young children are less likely to work full time outside the home, even when they’re unmarried and could really use the money. Women without a lot of education who have young children are especially unlikely to be able to find better jobs.

A third problem: Part of having richer kids is having fewer kids, because the parents are able to concentrate their resources more. This puts further tension between the goals of having lots of children and having richer children.

But wait there’s more. How do women stay married? People who get married later are more likely to stay married. Those who don’t have children before they marry are more likely to stay married. People who don’t sleep with lots of people are more likely to stay married—and sleeping with lots of people relates pretty strongly to being physically attractive. Now, how is a woman supposed to have lots of sexy children if she waits so long to get married and have kids, and then marries a less-attractive, sexually reserved guy?

Sorry, kid

Our project of giving social-science advice to a young woman who wants lots of rich, sexy kids is now, umm, screwed. Should she start having kids early or wait until later? Well, starting early is the major pathway to having lots of kids. But on the other hand, people who marry and have children young get less education, so they end up with less-wealthy children on average. Also, getting married young leads to higher divorce rates, and having children before marriage also leads to high divorce rates. And higher divorce rates lead to less-wealthy children.

Should she partner with a sexier guy or a less-sexy guy? Well, sexier guys produce sexier offspring. But on the other hand, sexier people are less likely to stay married, which, again, leads to poorer children. In particular, people who marry at younger ages need to be rather sociosexually reserved to avoid really high divorce rates these days.

Should she work outside the home or not? Paid work increases the family’s wealth, which leads to richer kids. But on the other hand, women with less education and more kids have a significantly harder time finding and maintaining higher-paying jobs.

In the end, there’s no simple advice for the young woman who wants lots of rich, sexy offspring. It turns out that the three parts of the goal—the lots, the rich, and the sexy—all conflict in serious ways. Trade-offs are everywhere. Indeed, these kinds of trade-offs could help us make progress in the puzzle of modern low fertility that I’ve been discussing in these last few posts (here, here, and here). More to come.