Thursday, March 18, 2010

Early Marriage Reconsidered

The excellent Robin Hanson, after quoting from a couple of articles that document the steep decline in female fertility with age, observes:

Today high status women stay long in school, start careers, and take long to match up with a man before having kids.  They are often too late, their kids have more defects, and the interruption hurts their career.  Low status women more often have an accidental early kid out of wedlock.

Imagine a different equilibrium, where females pick a male at 15, then school more slowly to have kids till some standard age (20? 25? 30?), when females return to full-time school and uninterrupted careers.

While it is not entirely clear if this new equilibrium would be better or worse, it certainly has some positive features.  Kids and moms would be healthier, kids more numerous and less accidental, moms more energetic, older folk would enjoy more grand kids etc., and career interruptions wouldn’t make female employees suspect.

Early parenting would have to be paid for by grandparents or via loans (or perhaps income shares), presumably in trade for some loss of autonomy.  While childhood does seem to be lengthening, it is not clear if this autonomy loss could be accepted.

For the male pattern, there are two obvious variations: males switch life-plans along with females, or males stay on the current plan.  Having males also switch would keep mates at similar ages, promote healthier kids and more energetic dads, and reduce opportunities for gender discrimination.

You knew this was coming . . . .

In fairness to Hanson, he almost certainly realizes the thoroughgoing cultural change we would have to affect in order to realize these kind of downstream effects.

The most obvious problem is that, as Taylor Swift candidly sings, there is no evidence that fifteen year old girls are especially competent decision makers, especially in matters of love and sex, and even more especially in choosing with whom they should spend the rest of their lives.  As I have argued previously, our culture sends a lot of false signals to young women in the regard, but that only deepens the required cultural retrenchment.

Hanson hints that parents should take a more active role in screening their daughters’ suitors, and indeed advocates greater involvement by extended families in helping new couples get their start in life.  Certainly this would be both necessary and appropriate; however, were they to actually follow Hanson’s apparent advice and match their teen girls with teen boys, they would have very little in the way of useful signals as to which of these suitors will be capable of providing for their daughters in The Manner To Which They Have Become Accustomed, or even which of them will tubs-o'-lard by age 40.

Hanson continues:

Randomness in kid timing and number would make it a bit harder to estimate student quality based on student performance – could we find ways to correct for this?  And the fact that low status moms now have kids early makes it harder to coordinate a switch to this new equilibrium.  But still, it seems an interesting thing that never was, about which to ask: why not?

On the contrary, my understanding is that this has been the arrangement throughout most of the history of civilization. It is our current equilibrium that is historically anomalous. But again, our historical antecedents offer little of a roadmap on how to get from here to there, even if we agreed that we wanted to.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that Hanson's timeline appears to assume that families surrender the primary education of their children to conventional schools. But homeschooling families undertake full-time child-rearing responsibilities for a good twelve years longer. At some point, we should be realistic about the chances of a woman returning to "high school" at age 35. Indeed, the "historical antecedents" to which I referred took for granted that a woman's education would peak at a level far below that of a man.

That said, it will not surprise my readers that I would be largely complacent about this development. On the one hand, I want positive life outcomes for my daughters, and quitting school at age 15 makes these outcomes highly improbable, given the culture we actually have. But in general, I'm not especially enthused about the mass production of female corporate drones, and as far as education's claims to making a woman more "cultured", I would question the efficiency of conventional schooling to achieve this relative to, say, a library card.


Grim said...

A better system would be arranged marriages at 15(girl) and 22-29(boy). That age range should allow parents to find a successful guy for their daughter. The girl then continues learning (you don't need college for continued learning these days) and teaches the children(assuming home school) till her early 30s when she starts her career. This should lead to increasing IQs, healthy offspring, and happy family life.

I don't really understand the objections that people have to women loosing out by missing schooling from 15-22. Lots of guys work full time jobs and go to school so I don't understand why women can't raise kids and learn at the same time.

knightblaster said...

There isn't a silver bullet in this area. I don't think 15 year olds are mature enough to marry in this culture. The main issue, I think, is not so much the marrying ages as (1) what are people doing before they marry and (2) when are people starting families.

If women were to mostly get married just a few years earlier -- say average of 23-24 -- there would be less of an issue, because presumably many of these women would be starting families in the mid to late 20s which leaves them enough time on the back end to recover. I do think that things tend to work out *better* for families if the family gets started in the late 20s period at the latest -- more energy from both parents, less set in pre-parental ways, more time after kids are older to pursue other things and so on.

The problem today, I think, is not so much that young people want to set themselves up educationally and professionally, although that is certainly a part of it. I think there's also that 3-4 year period when "girls just wanna have fun", between the time that educating is done and serious mate selection begins. There is an expectation in the culture that young people have that they want to be free during their young years to enjoy themselves when they have the double abundance of both time and money at the same time, coupled with youthful beauty and so on. This is, I think, a main factor driving people to mate select later, especially among women (but not only ... plenty of guys aren't eager to leave Guyland much before 30 either). It's in these situations that marriage happens later, and then you get the crunch of career and kids and lesser fertility, lesser energy and so on.

Career-wise I'd expect it's better for women to stop out in their late 20s and come back in the late 30s when the kids are old enough than it is to have kids in the early to mid 30s and then try to juggle everything, or end up stopping out until the mid 40s. But to young women it doesn't look that way -- that looks like giving up too much "good stuff" (fun, independence, career advancement) on the front end -- which I think is the main issue.

I expect we'll see some women making the earlier mating/mothering tradeoff, but otherwise more calls for subsidized day care and mandated flex time and so on so that women don't need to make any trade off at all. It's going to be hard to convince empowered, independent young women to slice 3-4 years of party time off in the 20s -- the opportunity cost for them is too high.

Jehu said...

In my experience, homeschooled kids tend to marry a lot sooner---frequently from 18-20 to other homeschooled kids. They seem to do just fine. It helps that they almost always graduate the equivalent of high school by 16 or earlier, so they have a substantial jump on their public schooled 'peers'.

Sheila Tone said...

Blecch, ick, these ideas about how to increase early childbirth always sound so unappealing.

Phi, forget the library card: She needs *life.* Society is complicated nowadays. And Gannon notwithstanding, I think it's a really, really bad idea to have widely varying experience/sophistication levels between partners.

I think the whole "fertility problems" argument is likely overblown. I waited until my mid-to-late 30s to get pregnant and had no problems. That said, my husband and I do worry a bit about the fact that we'll be AARP age by the time the kids graduate high school. There's higher odds of a serious health condition happening to one or both of us.

"Career-wise I'd expect it's better for women to stop out in their late 20s and come back in the late 30s when the kids are old enough than it is to have kids in the early to mid 30s and then try to juggle everything,"

Wish the economy worked like that. Hell, I just wish it worked, period.

Sheila Tone said...

And man, would I have been *hosed* for life if I'd had to pick a partner -- or have my dad pick one! -- from what was available to me at age 15.

knightblaster said...

Wish the economy worked like that. Hell, I just wish it worked, period.

My ex-wife did it this way. She got her degrees and then we had our son when she was done with that, at age 26. She started her career off slowly, part-time at first and then flextime working from home -- which certainly slowed her earlier advancement, but she is bright and was able to keep things up. Our son is now 10, and she is ramping the career up now, done with the early childhood years at 36 and can really smash the pedal down a bit now. Seemed to work out well enough for her -- she swears by it, herself, as an approach, and can't imagine having young kids starting now in her life.

Dr. Φ said...

Blecch, ick . . .

Candidly, this was Mrs. Φ's opinion of Hanson's post as well. It goes to show that our reactions can be culturally conditioned, but nonetheless salient because of it.