January 15, 2005

Column 2005-1-15 Commentary: Empty Heads, Empty Words

In this column, Brooks manages to identify an actual societal problem: the difficulty many educated middle-class women have of balancing children and a career, though typically for Brooks, he is more worried about women who sacrifice children for a career than those who sacrifice a career for children. His solution is simple: change society so as to make it easier for women to have children before moving into the workforce. Interestingly, the only way Brooks, supposedly a conservative, can think of to accomplish this change is a massive government-run social engineering program in which young couples are paid to have children. How will we pay for it? Well, perhaps we can take some money from the elderly: says Brooks, "the government spends trillions on retirees, but very little on young families". I suppose this is as good a reason for dismantling Social Security as any. And if those damn old people complain, well, they can just go back to work.

For once, Brooks starts off his column with some facts. Naturally, this doesn't last long, and by the second paragraph, he is into full-fledged speculation: "this longing for the kids they did not have is a profound, soul-encompassing sadness". While this is very poetic, and may be true for some childless women, Brooks makes no attempt to back this assertion with facts and fails to mention for just how many women this is the case.

Brooks follows this up by pointing out the obvious: women can't always choose when to have children and when to work on a career. His claim that this is the most important reason why women have smaller familes these days is considerably more dubious and is presented, as per usual, with no evidence. Instead, Brooks describes a typical career path for a middle-class woman, with, probably, some accuracy -- as no evidence is given, it's hard to tell how much -- and claims that it is completely turned around: when women are most fertile, they are working, and when they should be working, they're raising their kids. How much better, Brooks says, if they made an effort to marry early and had kids in their twenties, and then headed out into the world of work.

Who knew that the solution to this problem was simply for women to marry earlier and have kids earlier? All they have to do is "make a . . . effort": how complicated can it be? Well, in fact, there are a couple of complications Brooks is eliding as he blithely urges women to "make a greater effort to marry earlier". There's the question of finding someone to marry, for one thing. This is not always quite as easy as Brooks seems to think. Furthermore, people often want to use their early twenties to do things -- join the Peace Corps, join the Army, travel around the world, etc. -- in which a spouse might, and children certainly would, be a hindrance.

There are also economic reasons for not marrying and having kids early: college-educated people in their early twenties tend to not be making as much money as they will be later on, especially if they are pursuing advanced degrees. This may not stop two people from marrying, but it will most likely encourage them to delay having children, especially as the one of the wage earners will abrubtly bring in far less money or stop bringing money in altogether. Having one child, much less the two or three that Brooks mentions as being the ideal size for a family, requires some significant expenses. A larger apartment or possibly even a house, perhaps in a nicer neighborhood, is one big one. Given how much college costs these days, it's probably best to start saving fairly soon. And then there are the basics: food, clothes, toys, etc. For a couple in their twenties, likely still paying off college loans, and possibly law/medical/business/other school loans as well, this may well represent more money than they feel they can come up with, which is one big reason children are put off until their thirties, when they feel they are making enough money to afford them. We should not be surprised, though, that Brooks ignores all of these factors in his column: he routinely overlooks economics when he attempts to analyze some aspect of American culture.

Finally, there are the obstacles faced by a woman -- or, for that matter, a man: there may be some stay-at-home dads -- who, after years away from her chosen field raising kids, attempts to break into it. For instance, what if she wants to do something that requires an advanced degree which she doesn't already have? To Brooks, the solution is easy: graduate programs specifically for parents. Even asssuming such programs are feasible on the large scale that would be required, some problems remain. For one thing, graduate/law/medical/business school can take up a lot of one's time, more than an ordinary job might, and with less flexibility. Can a woman with two or three young kids really go to medical school and get an M.D.? Well, yes, but it would probably require exceptional effort and an extremely understanding husband. Once again, economics rears its head: advanced degrees can be expensive. Much money is already being spent on kids: will there be enough left? And even if the woman already has sufficient credentials for the career she wants to pursue, she will have to compete against people who are years younger, more energetic, and without ties. The fact is, employers will most likely be reluctant to consider a woman in her mid-to-late thirties with several kids for a job that is usually given to someone in their early-to-mid twenties without any such obligations.

This whole colum was inspired by "those many millions of Americans who hit their mid-40's and regret having kids, or not having as many as they would like", as Brooks puts it in his last paragraph. One solution to this problem which he does not seem to have thought of is for these middle-aged and childless couples to have children. Science has developed various ways of prolonging fertility, and if one does not want to risk having quintuplets because of taking fertility drugs, there is always adoption. Brooks claims that rising fertility rates would be good for the country: apparently he's never heard of the world's overpopulation problem. While adopting kids in one's forties is certainly not a perfect solution to the problem of balancing children and a career, it's a lot more feasible than Brooks's solution.

Brooks's motives for writing this column were good, but more than good intentions are needed, and once again I find myself at a loss to explain why the New York Times has given him a column.