With financial success ought to come some measure of relief—a chance to take in a deep breath, exhale, and survey the world from the top.
But, as Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic cover story on the high rate of suicide among high-school students in Palo Alto, California, captures, that’s not how things work. To the contrary, kids living in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country are stressed and miserable. As Rosin writes:
On the surface, the rich kids seem to be thriving. They have cars, nice clothes, good grades, easy access to health care, and, on paper, excellent prospects. But many of them are not navigating adolescence successfully.
The rich middle- and high-school kids [Arizona State professor Suniya] Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm.* They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule-breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft.
Why is this? As Rosin reports, a major factor is “pressure”—from parents, teachers, themselves, whoever—to excel not just in school but in a host of other activities as well. All of that pressure and the resulting hyper-activity seem to leave kids feeling very tired, very inadequate, and very alone. No wonder they are miserable.
But that does little to answer the question of why there is so much pressure in the first place. It turns out that there is a pretty straightforward—and ultimately very troubling—answer: It’s because the competition for a place among the country’s well-off is so vicious. To secure one of those spots, kids must gain admission to a relatively small number of elite colleges and universities, which “essentially did not grow but rather became increasingly selective” since the 1970s. (By contrast, in Canada, where higher education “lacks a steep prestige hierarchy,” the admissions competition is less dire.)
In part, this is because of what sort of people make up America's elite today: not the owners of family businesses but professionals with impressive educations. Family businesses are heritable; education, by contrast, is not. No matter how successful parents are, their kids have to earn their own way in (albeit, of course, with the incredible advantages that come from having highly educated, well-off parents). As sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman put it in an interview with Jessica Grose at Slate, “If you’re a doctor, lawyer, or MBA—you can’t pass those on to your kids.”
All of this results in what the economists Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, brilliantly termed “the rug rat race.” As they wrote in a 2010 paper, “The increased scarcity of college slots appears to have heightened rivalry among parents, which takes the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities.” In their findings, the rug rat race takes place primarily among the most educated parents, because there simply aren’t enough spots at elite schools for less-educated parents to even really have a shot, especially as the competition accelerates. It’s for this reason that the most educated parents spend the most hours parenting, even though they are giving up the most in wages by doing so.
This tough competition does more than serve as a giant sieve for college admissions; it is also an intensive training process for the actual skills that it takes to succeed at the upper echelons of the American economy. As one soccer parent told Friedman during her research on parenting in such a competitive culture, “I think it’s important for [my son] to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.” Friedman concludes, “Such an attitude prepares children for winner-take-all settings like the school system and lucrative labor markets.”
This leaves affluent parents with little choice. Even for those who fear the consequences of the pressure on their kids, they may figure it’s worth getting through a few tough years for a lifetime of economic security. One thing that bolsters this rationale: the steep dropoff in incomes and wealth from the very, very rich to America’s struggling middle class. There is a lot to be gained by being among the very elite. If that's something you have a reasonable shot at, there’s a good argument for taking it.
The conversation about the intense pressure on kids is normally focused on parenting culture, on what parents are doing wrong. But this all needs to be considered in the broader context of the American economy. The pressure on kids may come from parents, but it’s the result of systemic forces so much bigger and so much more powerful than anything any household has control over.
In a sense, what wealthy parents are doing is working. There is very little social mobility in America, up or down, and most of those born into the richest and best-educated households will someday run their own high-earning, highly educated households.
Then again, it’s not working at all. There is very little social mobility in America, up or down, and most of those born into the poorest and least-educated households will someday run their own low-earning, poorly educated households. How is it that a country so prosperous shines its munificence on so few? And, for those who do find success, why does getting there leave them feeling so hopeless?
* This article originally stated that Suniya Luthar is a professor at Yale. We regret the error.