Parenting versus career choice thinking in teenagers

by VipulNaik 2 min read13th Mar 201427 comments


This is a somewhat modified version of a Facebook post I made a few days ago, incorporating some of the comments there. I think the Less Wrong readership may have interesting thoughts on the subject.

In recent times, especially in the developed world and among higher socio-economic status families everywhere in the world, it's common for teenagers (and even younger children) to be encouraged to think in systematic ways about their career choice, but it's relatively rare for them to be encouraged to think in systematic ways about how many children they'll have or how they'll raise their children. A lot of teenagers do have views on the subject of children, but they're not encouraged to have views, and they're not encouraged to refine those views. With career choice, although there's still probably a lot of room for improvement in the quality of advice and guidance offered, people at least in principle acknowledge its importance.

What do you think explains the disparity? Here are some explanations with my thoughts on them:

  1. Career choice is (believed to be) more important than the choice of how many children to have and how to raise them: For people who expect to generate a huge amount of value in their careers, this is probably true, because if they do have children, the children are likely to be less exceptional (regression to the mean). However, for most people, this probably isn't the case: having children could be one of their main forms of contribution to society.
  2. Career choice requires planning from a younger age, because it requires selection of subjects to study in school and college: There's more lead time needed for career choice, whereas it takes only nine months to have a child. This seems to work as a reasonable explanation for people who are inclined to have very few kids, but it doesn't work for people who are interested in keeping open the option of having a large number of kids. Also, as they say, it takes two to have a baby, so one does need to plan somewhat in advance. Finally, the choice of when to have kids can affect one's selection of career as well.
  3. Choices related to children are believed to be something that are best made after one has selected a life partner to discuss them with, and unilateral thinking is considered counterproductive: There's probably some truth to this. But the point could be made in reverse as well: in order to make sure one selects life partners well, it makes sense to think of one's choices and desires regarding children before one gets into a serious relationship so that one can check for compatibility on that front.
  4. Teenagers aren't sufficiently mature (physically, mentally, emotionally) to think about childbearing and childrearing choices in a meaningful manner, and/or their views on the subject are much more likely to change, relative to their views on career choices.
  5. People will have children anyway, because it's part of their biological instincts: This is sort of true, but not quite. Many countries in Europe and East Asia have fertility rates well below replacement. This includes some highly developed countries such as Singapore (TFR ~1.3), Germany and Japan (TFR ~1.4), as well as some middle-income countries such as China (TFR~1.6-1.8) and Eastern European countries. With the exception of Germany, most of these countries still have desired fertility greater than 2, but people aren't generally able to achieve their fertility desires -- partly because they keep delaying childrearing. Moreover, highly educated women often have similar or even higher reported ideal family size although their completed fertility is lower (see this PDF and the linked references here for more).
  6. Thinking about career instead of children signals high status: This overlaps somewhat with the other points, but differs in that it's a more cynical take: perhaps thinking about one's career as opposed to one's family signals one as high-status (by distinguishing oneself from demographic or socio-economic groups where people marry early or have out-of-wedlock teen pregnancies frequently). Something like "while other women were dropping out of high school to have babies, I was baby working hard to get into Harvard so that I could then have a great career in finance after that." Or, "while the other men were settling down for easy-to-get jobs and thinking of marrying to settle down and have kids, I'm working hard to fulfill my ambition to become a writer. I won't let thoughts of family distract me for now."

What do you think of these explanations? Any others I'm missing? Correctness of the explanations at a factual level? Importance as explanations?

PS: Some of my other recent posts have been based on stuff I wrote up in connection with working for Cognito Mentoring, but this one isn't, though it's possible it might inform my later work for Cognito Mentoring.