Why don’t people marry anmore? 3 myths and 3 facts.

Since the 1970s, marriage rates in the US have decreased 30 to 50 percent among younger adults, depending on demographic group. I have wanted to write about the economics of this for a while, and fascinated by this paper, had a whole narrative spun out in my head about the decline in some kinds of jobs for men, the exit of these men from the labor- and then the marriage markets and the consequences, including, possibly, extremism. But a Freakonomics podcast woke me up from dreamily walking into

Myth No. 1: Poverty is the reason for the decline in marriage. We do see in the cross-section of US data that poorer people marry less and cohabit more. We also see a combination of stylized facts that suggest that a decline in manufacturing jobs reduces the number of marriageable men via unemployment, addiction, mortality and homelessness. But the effect is not big enough and insufficient to explain the full decline in marriage. And the reverse is definitely not true: economic booms do not increase the marriage rate. They increase fertility, i.e. number of kids, but not marriage.

Myth No. 2: Looking at marriage alone is a nonstarter; cohabitation and marriage are the same thing. No they aren’t, definitely not in the world described by US data, and not for the group that matters most: kids. Kids of unmarried parents have worse outcomes in many different dimensions, education, health, wellbeing. The US situation is particularly stark internationally both in the achievement gap and the (large) share of single parent families. – This is not necessarily a helpful insight given that often single parenthood has not been chosen. But we will need to live with the fact that it’s better for a kid if her parents are married.

Myth No. 3: Declining marriage is no problem. With available modern contraception, out of marriage births are under control. Sadly, they are not. 40% of all children are now born outside of marriage, and of these, 60% were unplanned. Contraception can and does fail. More importantly, many people drift into relationships and into childbearing without much time or pause to reflect and plan for consequences. The sober chat before things heat up is rare, across the income spectrum and especially at the bottom end. But it shouldn’t be. Isabel Sawhill, the Grande Dame of researching declining marriage and its consequences, shows how the wider choices available today in terms of family formation require ‘planning’ rather than ‘drifting’ to arrive at a good outcome.

Judging from the above, marriage is an institution worth upholding and spreading. To that aim, getting richer is desirable, but does not help us increase the marriage rate back to where it was. What else, then, matters?

Fact No. 1: Gender ratios matter. When men need to compete for women, the marriage rate increases. For more details, see here.

Fact No. 2: Shotgun marriage has declined, due to abortion and contraception on demand. This is possibly the largest driver of the decline in marriage. – Tough news, I know. But it comes from Janet Yellen and her husband, both quite above the suspicion of conservative bias. – Don’t get me wrong, I am no fan of shotgun marriages. They still exist, and out of the ten or so cases I know, only a small minority ended in sustained long-term couple-hood. But all the cases created a nurturing environment for children to grow up in.
Turning back the clock on the social options available to us is possible only selectively. (The Amish don’t have the problem of a falling marriage rate. Neither has Ave Maria Town.) What else can be done? William Saletan in Slate makes a vocal case for holding unmarried fathers accountable as if they were married and it seems an option worth considering.

Fact No. 3: Marriage has decreased at the top end of female earnings: men still struggle to accept women as breadwinners.
No one less than today’s Nobel Laureate, Richard Thaler, delivers this fact in a very arresting NYT piece. He quotes research showing that ‘the trend in the percentage of women making more than men explains almost one-fourth of the marriage rate’s decline in the 40 years ended in 2010.’

One fourth. That is about as big a contribution to the fall in marriage rates as are declining job opportunities for men. Food for thought.

“When he says, he doesn’t want to get attached, take his word.”

I have for a while pondered adding an economist’s twopence to the wonderful “Dear Carolyn” column in the Washington Post and not yet gotten there. But recently, there has been a recurring theme, and it has made my hands tickle.
Story no. 1 is about a relationship that means different things to him and her; basically she is committed and sees them as girlfriend and boyfriend and he does not. Story no. 2 has more or less the same theme, with the added twist that she has successfully convinced herself that he, despite saying the contrary, actually feels for her as she does for him.

Wowowow. There are a couple of themes here which we need to disentangle one by one.

1. Contracts.
At first sight, the economist thinks, ‘a-ha, incomplete contracts’. But that is not true. Incomplete contract theory states that no contract, no matter how well thought out, can include a clause for any eventuality, because many eventualities are unknown and unforeseeable, including the possibility that both contracting parties actually want something else in future.
But we are not in incomplete-contract territory. We are in no-contract territory. There is no contract, not even an incomplete one. No agreement of terms, only expectation of terms, and the side with the higher standards loses out.

Ladies, can I be your big sister for a second. You.have.to.negotiate. You.need.to.make.your.terms.clear. From an economist’s perspective, you.need.a.contract. It does not need to be a written one, but you have to talk. Early. Verbally. Before the non-verbal negotiation takes over. The second date is a good occasion to do this, assuming that the first date is just to check if you ever want to meet again, and the third date sometimes carries expectations. Yes, there is a chance that he turns your terms down. But I believe in 9 of 10 cases, he won’t. Here is why.

2. The demand for Female vs Male sex.
Ok, we need to take a cold blooded quant look at the reality of markets now. Are you ready? Female hetero sexuality is an asset. It is worth loads, concretely and figuratively. There is a gigantic, mega, market for female hetero sex, in all its forms, for just looking at things, for reading about it, for the visual and conversational presence of a woman, and I am not just talking about porn and prostitution and money. When economists say ‘market’, they mean an exchange of demand and supply more broadly. A picture of a smiling woman on a credit ad makes men willing to pay a 25% higher interest rate on that credit. There are papers that make a convincing case that marriage is in essence a contract about female hetero sex. Borrowing the words of Melissa Etheridge for a somewhat different context, many men would ‘beg, steal and lie, fight, kill and die’, to have a woman. And many have gone there.
There just is no equivalent market for male hetero sex. If you look at the actual monetary value of these markets, their size relation is more extreme than the sun vs the moon. The.sun.vs.the.moon. Let that sink in.

The relationships portrayed in stories 1 and 2 are basically sex-only relationships where male hetero sex is traded against female hetero sex. The guys are offering (less than) the moon for the sun. That is NO equivalent, from an economist’s viewpoint. Not by a large shot. In order to make this trade fair, the guys would need to put a lot more in.
That means, ladies, you get to set the terms. Make sure you do.

(In case you find my views too subtle, try Psychology Today.)

3. Oxytocin
I wrote about that before here. Women have on average more of an oxytocin response than men. Important to keep in mind. You don’t want to be negotiating with too much oxytocin in your blood. You will trust where trust is not warranted.
That is why it’s important to have that conversation early. At the time of writing to Carolyn, it was arguably a little late. But even then a cool down period can help focus and re-center.

If things fall apart because of that, don’t worry and remember the supply-demand situation set out in point 2. There is plenty more fish in the sea, and it is swimming towards you.

One man, six dates. What does the Economist think?

A week ago, @LisettePylant’s account of a six-fold date made headlines in DC. Justin Schweiger had booked six dates in 20-30min slots on a single evening. Basically, he tried to speed date unilaterally, and without announcing that he was doing so. The women noticed rather quickly, got together without him and became friends. Ms. Pylant exposed the experience on twitter. It was later featured in other outlets including the Washington Post.

First of all, this is quite wonderfully hilarious. Guy thinks the world about his own efficiency (and attractiveness?) and finds himself outmaneuvered before you can say ‘think..’. I guess, in future, Justin will only be able to date people who are either masochists or don’t read (the media) and he may or may not enjoy that situation.

What was going on here?

  1. That gender ratio. Why was he able to do that – one man, six women. Aren’t the women too busy, including with other dates? Or does that reflect the actual gender ratio in DC? – Well, 1:6 is a bit strong, but single women do outnumber single men in most neighborhoods in DC, as Holly Thomas blogs here. This situation is still current, and typical for the metropolitan areas of the East Coast. (For an eloquent analysis of gender ratios in the modern American dating world, see Jon Birger.)
  2. The ladies cracked the code. Contrary to much coverage on the event, I fail to find Justin Schweiger especially shocking. Most thinking ladies over 18 have encountered creepy behavior in the dating world at some point; sadly, it’s hardly news. What is new is that this one got public coverage – and that the women outdid the effect in solidarity. That is, by the way, the code to crack in skewed gender ratios: solidarity. Standing together as women and refusing to compete on standards. The principle has been well-known to economists for a long time, it is the good old-fashioned….trade union. It outdoes unequal (power) ratios by bundling individual demands.
  3. What now? While spontaneous and elegant, the ladies’ get together and agreement were indeed a budding trade union, from an economics point of view. (Not that trade unions can’t be spontaneous and elegant.) I would much encourage to continue on that principle and draw up a charter of standards in dating that DC women are not willing to do without. The more women subscribe, the less the gender ratio will be felt. Being the only date during one evening could be one standard, for example; or the only one, at all, before things get cozy. The bar will be as high as you set it, and firmer if many agree on it.

Fathers and Daughters

I haven’t blogged for a while, because since the death of my father in early March, my mood did not hold much space for light thoughts. Approaching Father’s Day however reminds me that he would want me to continue, and it feels like an appropriate occasion to pick up the plume.

My father was a conservative man, socially and politically, but one theme where he overtook the liberals in their own lane was women’s empowerment. From the time I was able to witness, he supported rising and powerful women. Thatcher in the 80s – at least until she started the Falkland war;  Madeleine Albright in the 90s; respect for Bhenazir Bhutto and Corazon Aquino as well as several business leaders. A vivid memory I retain is his regularly handing me newspaper articles about powerful women. “Couldn’t you do this?” Talking about Christine Bortenlaenger, who started running the Munich stock exchange at 33, or the then popular French PM Edith Cresson. Already in the new millenium, Merkel becoming chancellor was acknowledged like confirmed expectations.

What explains this progressive view, among many others he held which were rather proudly pre-Renaissance? Being raised by a war widow that needed to brave adversity may be one reason. But having a daughter may be another.

Fathers of daughters are pro-woman, in about everything

Diligent economists have shown that fathers of daughters show greater support for gender equity. US Congressmen vote more pro-woman on relevant issues, if they have daughters; and even more so if they have more daughters. Federal judges with more daughters decide more liberally on women’s issues and this effect comes, wait for it, mostly from Republican judges. (Dad, you would’ve been right at home there.)

Parenting more daughters leads to an increased propensity to hire female partners by venture capital firms. There is a 24% increase in the probability of hiring a senior female investor when a son is replaced with a daughter for the existing partners in a firm.  –  Did I mention that my boss is the proud father of three daughters?

Fathers of daughters invest better

Those senior partners I was talking about, who hire more women because they have daughters; they also invest better. The piece of research I mentioned earlier shows that improved gender diversity in the firm, induced by parenting more daughters, improves deal and fund performances. This comes mostly from the daughters of senior partners rather than junior partners (which does not surprise me, because the senior partners have more influence).

Let’s think about this for a while. There is no proof here that an imposed gender quota improves performance; but partners that hire more women because they have daughters will find their teams are more successful. Partners whose fundamental world view is women friendly, and who act accordingly, perform well. In other words: partners who likely had any possible gender biases radically removed by having a daughter, make better deals.

It makes perfect sense, really. If you are capable of taking an unbiased look at investments and other decisions, you will make better ones. Including in hiring.

It all started when countries became richer and families had fewer children

The emergence of women’s empowerment, as well as of men who supported it, has a history. Two century long trends have been shown to bring this about. First, countries became richer and individuals accumulated more capital. Second, family planning became easier. These two count on a third trend, which is crucial in making family planning popular: spreading education.

How does this mix to become a soup? Consider property rights. If they are biased towards husbands versus wives, husbands gain. But only insofar as they don’t have daughters who will lose out in future to their husbands, based on the same biased rights. With family planning, there will be more families that only have daughters, and no sons. So there will be some men who will suffer a lot seeing their daughters suffer. At the same time, with the rising wealth, more and more men will reach a level of economic security that enables them to take risks.

At some level of average wealth and average family size, the scale tips and men would want to change the property laws to benefit their daughters more. The scale tips the earlier, the more biased the current property rights system. So, historically, it tipped earlier in common law countries than civil law countries.

This kind of explanation would have fascinated my history teaching dad. Sadly, we did not have a chance to discuss it. But if we did, he would have pointed out that while most laws are already changed towards equity, the power balances are not.







Work-Life-Child Balance in 2017: 5 Myths Busted

It is 9:25pm and The Husband and I can sit down for dinner. Finally. After I spent two and a half hours bathing and feeding three under 6 year olds. The eldest two fell asleep at 8pm, which is a miracle as they usually tend to hop around until after 9. But the little one, despite his only eleven months, struggled to calm down. It took another one and a half hours of me limbo dancing with him in a baby sling until he eventually dozed off. And in between back rubs and sandwich folding, I checked on various urgent work email trails. (I usually take care to answer only the most important ones, because, under the circumstances, I may end up sounding less composed than I actually am.)

During the same time, The Husband was trekking through Rodman’s and Aldi chasing some vital ingredients to reconstruct a German Christmas in America. (Let me take a sip before I continue. I have just been handed a Cabernet with a blue cheese and fig jam tartine on the side. Hm. Senses slowly coming back.)

How do people do this? I mean, spending quality time with your kids while earning the means to do so and still getting enough sleep to ward off premature dementia? How are you supposed to do it? – The question keeps occupying researchers and I am not sure it is solved yet. Still, my recent dive into the research rewarded me with busting a few myths:

Myth #1: You need to spend a maximum of time with your kids

No. In fact, the quantity of time is irrelevant for children age 3 to 11 as long as it does not drop below the minimum of about 6 hours per week, according to this new large-scale study. Frankly, 6 hours is nothing, like just getting dressed and one meal together six days a week. Or, one weekend afternoon and nothing else. Kids that have this much of parent time, or the double of it, fare just the same in terms of achievement, behavior and emotional well-being.

So there. What have we been stressing about? Mothers in 2016 spend on average 14 hours with their children per week, while mostly, half of it would do. The only group of children for whom more time makes a difference are those that are about to grow out of childhood: for adolescents, 12 years+, more parental time makes a difference in terms of better behavior.

The quality always matters though. The time you spend together should be interactive. If you spend it doing nothing or watching TV, it will be detrimental.  – On the other hand, unstructured alone time is good for children; it has been shown to build executive skills. 

Myth #2: It doesn’t matter if parents sleep less when they have kids

Oh, it does. If parents are stressed and sleep-deprived, parent time will be harmful for children, Milkie’s study found out. As a parent, you should see to your own sleep at least as much as to your children’s sleep. Let’s be realistic, this is unfeasible without enlisting outside help from time to time, as well as taking turns with your spouse in getting up at night and a flexible employer who understands that on some days, your full brain at work at 10:30am is better than half of it at 8:30am.

It’s a tough nut to crack, but I understand it a bit like the oxygen mask in planes: you must put on your own mask first, if you want to have a decent chance at helping your child.

Myth #3: It is a good idea for a mother to give up her job to have more time for children

Better not. Two things that do more than parental time for the future success of a child, according to the above study and others, is family income and a mother’s educational level. Higher income and higher maternal education are always good. Milkie also finds that mothers’ work hours don’t matter much at all.

So, both spouses working is a good thing. I can imagine some non-linear reasoning here though, with the impact of dual earning being particularly strong at lower income levels and less so above a certain level. Further studies should look into this.

Myth #4: Only your kids’ fun matters, your own doesn’t

Actually, your own fun is vital. A study on 6500 children and their fathers published in the British Medical Journal found that the amount of fun fathers had while parenting was much more important than the time they were involved. Fun fathers were 28% less likely to have children with behavior problems.

“The researchers discovered that how secure the fathers felt about their role and their partner, and how emotionally connected they were with their children, were more important in reducing the likelihood of behavioural problems than the time they put in to childcare.”

Myth #5: We want to keep our kids supervised because of the risks they are exposed to.

Nope. We supervise them closely because we find it immoral to do otherwise. It has nothing to do with the actual risks the kids face. As Ashley Thomas and her team carefully researched with an experiment, our brain muddles up the two, morals and risk perception. The less morally acceptable we find the reason why a child is left alone, the more at risk we believe the child is.

This is not to say that there are no risks out there. I am not in the camp of ‘let the kids be in the street alone all day, like it used to be’. Yes, it used to be the case, and I had collected two concussions by age 6, while my 6 year old today has never had one. But we do need to take a step back and realize our risk perceptions are out of whack. Kids need enough unsupervised freedom to develop their own life skills.

So they can make their own blue cheese and fig jam tartines and get themselves to bed. For example. Eventually. Bottom line, parents need to let themselves off the hook a bit more, take license to live, and breathe and have fun, and stress a bit less in 2017.

Power Couples

Town and Country

I am sitting on an old style white chalked brick veranda with a sweeping view of expansive forests and rolling hills. The woodlands cover about five times the area of the settlements in their midst. I grew up here, so although I cannot see the detail of the boscage from where I sit, I know it to harbor fir, spruce, white oak, maple, beeches and birches. On a warm humid day with wind you can smell the spruce. And with the hindsight of economic studies, I recognize the region to host a wood cluster, from forestry along the value chain of industrial and fine carpentry and about any wood product a house may need. Some of the unpretentious medium sized manufacturers are world market leaders for a random product, like a kind of wood siding, or window caulking. Social networks in the small towns are dense, it is easy to know everyone living in the region, at least a little.

When I left this peaceful place for the first time to live in a big city, one of the things that struck me was the anonymity that reigns once you hit the million person mark. Every day you meet people and families that your parents or other kin did not know before. You have to actively build up a stock of knowledge about them, and several people may not have ‘a reputation’ of some sort because the turnover of interactions is so fast and fluid.
At the same time, the amount of opportunities and choice are wonderful. In the city I moved to, you had a bus for every destination you wanted to get to, a course for any subject you wanted to learn. Out of the 6m inhabitants, you had a pool of at least 1m you could interact with and recruit friends from. It was easy to match preferences, from classical music over poetry to spiritual brand. Sports, music and any other hobby could be practiced at near olympic standards. (And the city we are talking about is Bogota, not Boston. In the 1990s. Just for the record.)

The variety of jobs people did was diverse too. In addition to teachers and doctors, I met salesmen, bankers, engineers, painters, entrepreneurs in retail, textile manufacturing, forwarding and furniture design, employees and managers of multinationals. I could make out a couple of clusters touching the city: the beverage industry, furniture and jewelry design, pharma and cosmetics. Professional activities mingled and overlapped and moving from one to another was a more obvious and more frequent choice than in my original forestial dwelling.

Love in the City

Which surroundings are best for your dating? It depends. As people couple up, they think about compatibility. This includes natural affinity, values and preferences, but it also includes very practical matters. Such as, will both partners work, and where will they work. The industrially more diverse metropolitan environment is likely to hold more options for either half of the couple. If both partners want to work, they will be more able to do that in the city rather than in the country. They are also more likely to find a better job match in the city. I.e. the more demanding and peculiar they are about what they want to do, the more they will benefit from the better odds in the city of actually finding it. In principle.

Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn mined valuable data from the US and corroborated this story in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (Nov 2000). Between 1940 and 1990, the college educated drifted increasingly to cities, and the biggest driver of this drift was the emergence of Dual Earner couples. By far. Husband AND wife started to work, and career minded people increasingly mated with career minded people. (As for why this suddenly happened, see my previous post Opposites Distract.)
This does not mean there are no power couples in the countryside, but if you look closely you will realize they are far fewer. And mostly covering the essential services: medicine, teaching, pharmacy, religion. Unless both partners happen to specialize in the particular local industry.

The emergence of dual earners is a sign of greater equality in couples. But the process of their concentration in cities helps create spaces of two speeds. By attracting qualified people more easily, cities will thrive more. While the countryside suffers brain drain. Over time, town and country may drift apart in productivity and wealth.

Digital Desegregation

However, let’s not forget that this is 2016. The spatial segregation I describe above applies to jobs that are geographically bound, that need a specific place of work and personal presence. This requirement is fading in many industries. Digital jobs like programmer and web designer can be done from any place with an internet connection, and so can many back- and sometimes front office jobs in finance, medicine and retail. Presence jobs in fields as diverse as diplomacy, engineering and science have phases that can be covered effectively and (more) efficiently through telework.

And this is why I can sit on this white veranda and enjoy the clean air and the view of the forests in the evening sun. My blog will soon be posted to the internet, visible in town and country alike. And my man is sitting next door and writing his own.

Opposites Distract

A Tale of Two Lives

My grandma Ann was a sporty, almost athletic woman who loved to swim. She had learned home economics in an exclusive boarding school and was a highly professional housewife. She knew the nutritional content of every staple food by heart and spent all morning cooking and straightening the house, aided by a maid. The afternoons were for looking after the kids and/ or paying and receiving calls. Her husband, my grandpa, worked long hours in his own law practice. I am not sure how much time their lifestyles left for joint leisure. On Sundays there was mass – which my grandma enjoyed and grandpa didn’t. And a bit of joint paying and receiving calls, according to a code that is no longer in use. (The maid would bring three business cards on a tray to announce a visiting couple: one from the wife and the husband each for grandma, and one from the husband for grandpa. Because a lady would not call on a gentleman.) My grandparents’ marriage project did not include a big plan for joint spare time; that was a secondary question if a question at all. They were from the same broader region but otherwise not very much the same. If they had something you could call hobbies, grandma loved doing sports with the kids, and churchy things. Grandpa went deer hunting with his buddies.Their tastes and views differed in books, music, politics and culture more generally. I know for a fact they voted for different parties all their lives. Opposites had attracted each other very much, they married young. It was more important for them to economically complement each other; grandma’s perfect running of the household including all nooks and crannies allowed grandpa to rise in his career, gain some notoriety in his profession and thereby build modest wealth for his family.

My other granny’s story is quite different. After secondary school, she had learned a trade that would earn her money. She worked several years as a commercial and legal secretary, and ended up running the front office of a regional court. Having turned down several marriage proposals, she may have started to worry parents and acquaintances with her insistence to marry for love alone. Finally, at the (then mature) age of 29, she accepted my grandfather who swept her off her feet. This marriage was two birds of a feather flocking together. Her teacher husband loved soft classical music, historic books and endless conversations with friends at least as much as she did if not more. They were both deeply religious; they also voted for the same party. The part time nature of their work allowed them to spend some leisure together and many family photos show the two of them with the kids. They took vacations and loved adventurous outings on their two huge motorbikes before the war did them part.

Love and technological change

What happened in the few years between my two grannies’ marriage dates? How come one follows a more traditional and one a seemingly more modern pattern? According to a paper by Lundberg and Pollak in 2007, two fundamental technical developments changed the lives of families in the first half of the 20th century: the surgence of household machines, and the pill. Before the advent of the machines, it was useful for partners to specialize, that is, for the husband to work and for the wife to look after the house and any children. Different skills sets and possibly different personalities in either half of the couple would allow this arrangement to work best. Tastes and likes were secondary, as Gary Becker’s seminal work on family economics underlines.

Household machines alleviated a housewife’s workload. A washing machine, even an antique one, allowed to handle multiples of the load that one could do with a scrubbing board on a basin. Coffee machines freed up one soul in the household to do something else for twenty minutes. This meant, that once the kids were in school, the woman could also go to work outside the house. Rewarded work made sense for women, and it made sense for their parents to invest in an education that would prepare for it. The pill (or other accessible forms of family planning) supported this trend as women could complete a full cycle of education well into their childbearing years. (On this one, also see Raquel Fernandez’s work.)

Women grew into a position to earn and to look after themselves. They did not need a breadwinner but won their own bread. In these circumstances, marriage was no longer a must. There were viable outside options for a young woman, at least economically; if probably at a social cost.

Love and leisure

Marriages became more of a choice than a necessity. They needed a joint fun component, and a leisure component. Joint leisure was made possible by the technological revolution in household machinery. In this world, husband and wife want to spend time together that they both enjoy. They want to have conversations for the sake of them, not because they are needed. To this end, it is recommendable to choose a partner that is similar in education and tastes. A partner that likes to do the same things in his leisure rather than a partner that occupies himself most efficiently in a complementary manner while his other half is also efficiently occupied in her job. The more salient joint leisure is in your life, the more opposites distract.

Social atavism?

The coupling of similar people is a feature we observe strongly in contemporary marriages. This so-called assortative mating has increased over time, and keeps increasing still. Partners are now usually close in education and wage, and also height, weight, and age. High-flying athletic lawyers tend to marry high flying athletic lawyers.  This does not mean that a regression on the social evolution over the generations is impossible. Opposites do find and attract each other sometimes, and it is not always clear where likeness ends and opposite-ness begins. In this day and age, however, there can be a tension between the economic reality and a traditional relationship model. Marriages between opposites last less long, on average, than those between well assorted mates.

(Second) Spring, Fertility and Happiness

Despite the ever changing weather, I hear birds chirping outside. Beams of sunlight come and go, as do bees that are kept at the local elementary. The daffodils have not given in to the rain and the mosquitoes have not arrived yet. Perfect spring. New green life is piercing through frosty soil, and a somehow larger family of Easter bunnies gathers on our lawn. A good moment to think about how human families form and grow and pursue happiness. I have witnessed this lifecycle building best in my immediate friends, such as Beth (not her real name).

Beth has been married for over ten years now. She confided to me that her wellbeing had changed markedly since she first partnered with Jack. Getting married and moving in together nudged up her happiness. Trying for a child and getting pregnant brought an even deeper contentment and feeling of security, also for Jack. The actual birth of the first baby was life changing and laborious. But at the same time deeply rewarding and instilling pride. Beth and Jack felt like family. Both of them older than 36, they also saw a long held wish materialize, and at a time where their biological clock could have decided otherwise. In spite of the hard work that followed and would eat up part of their leisure for good, they were happy.

Mikko Myrskylä und Rachel Margolis mined the extensive data from British and German household panels and found that the birth of a child normally increases the parents’ happiness. This is strongest for the first child and a bit milder for the second (and non-positive for the third). The effect is temporarily very strong. As they write, “happiness is, on average, 0.3-0.5 units higher (on 0-10 scale) when a child is born compared to the baseline 4-5 years earlier. This magnitude is comparable to the effect of divorce (-0.49) or going to from employed to unemployed (-0.47).”

Happiness gets a boost around the birth of a child, with 2-3 years anticipation before the birth and lasting 1-2 years thereafter. The happiness increasing period before birth may reflect partnering, marriage and getting pregnant; and the post birth decline possibly a realization of the permanent loss of spare time.

And, wait for it. You better have your kids at a mature age. Older parents, above 35, as well as the highly educated have a stronger happiness surge, and even when happiness drops around 2 years after the birth, it still stays above the long term average. So for these groups, parenthood increases their happiness sustainably. Younger parents (below 25) can see their happiness decline long term. This may reflect that younger parents typically have fewer resources available, and also that they still have a – now unfulfilled – need to enjoy life and leisure on their own. Older parents likely have had their partying years and can let them go.

Looking at all this it is understandable that more and more people decide to have their children later, and to limit their number. Parenthood in the second springtime of life lets the new happiness last.

Memento mori

“Memento mori – remember you are mortal.” This is really not big news, all our lives will end. But we are most of the time too good at ignoring it.

See, I have to write about death and mortality today because I am seeing too much of it. The Brussels and Ivory Coast hate attacks, people surprised by a diagnosis of terminal illness, young top-of-the-crop talents taking their own lives, car accidents, and again, diverse health struggles lost, heroically. Always untimely. Sorry for not coming up with a more uplifting topic, but bear with me. Because first, it is Good Friday and death is for a while the theme, and second, because by the end of this blog, I will try to extract some beauty from the setting. Somewhere.

Likely, none of us knows for when God has ordered the taxi, or who the driver is. And we repress thoughts about it successfully. We live as if we live forever. We love as if our relationship will last forever and beyond. It is easy to value today as if we had lots more of them coming, and value it barely more highly than tomorrow. Economists call this intertemporal preferences, or discount rate. For example, with a low rate we don’t discount the future strongly because we are convinced we have lots left. Or we are good at waiting. There are advantages to a low personal discount rate, such as willingness to save, invest, delay gratification, to work hard today for a better tomorrow. Most education aims at instilling these values in children.

But they may not be entirely realistic. In the long run, we are all dead, as Keynes wisely observed. We live moving towards death.
Some people get the news about God’s taxi, its driver and the approximate departure years in advance. It is still shocking news. It changes one’s outlook completely, and often quite painfully. Arguably the more painfully, the less prepared one is. There is a sudden realization of the strength of the will to live. An anger with fate or a higher power, sometimes turning one’s faith bitter. And the fear that the driver may be really unpleasant. And of the radical good-byes. (Radical, but not terminal, I believe.)
Even when the taxi is announced at a point in life that one could consider rich in years, and fulfilled, more often than not it pulls the emotional rug from under people.

My lesson from observing this is to get prepared. To live life, love, friendships, faith and work knowing the road will once end. To cherish every day, to worry a little less, to breathe more deeply, to savor food more, to spend more time with your kids, to give more and hoard less, to hold on to good memories and let go of grudges, to care for one’s time wisely and abstain from things, people and situations that drag.
To take liberties and forget others’ approval. To indulge all those who don’t know this. Simply, to put things into perspective. Many annoyances lose their weight in front of the fact that our stay on earth has an expiry date.

It is still fine to work hard and invest in tomorrow. But it is wiser to plant Lutheran apple trees and take joy in the planting rather than doing it only for the harvest. The apples may well be our offspring’s to enjoy without us, which is also worth it.

The Growth Mindset for Relationships

These days, The Growth Mindset is all the rage as a recipe for success, and for raising successful children. What does it mean?

A Growth Mindset, as discovered by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, is the inner belief that intelligence and talents can grow by effort. A Growth mindset lived out in practice means attributing successes and failures to one’s actions and effort rather than one’s fixed abilities. The opposite would be a fixed mindset.  In education, it means praising children for effort rather than ability such as smartness. A child that is praised for effort will invest in effort. A child that is praised for smartness will stagnate and rely on existing abilities only.

What use is this for relationships? Well, I would like to think that a Growth mindset can be applied to about everything. For example, to the extent to which partners are well suited to each other. A fixed mindset would take this as given, a  growth mindset would believe that a couple can be well matched today and better matched tomorrow. Personal affinity can grow. So can closeness.

On a sidebar, shhh, it can be a good way to influence your spouse. Praising his or her efforts…

For now, this is all theory. I challenge economists and other empirical researchers to test the effect of a growth mindset on relationships. Let me know what you found.