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The economics of ‘having it all’

Marketplace Contributor Jul 13, 2012

The economics of ‘having it all’

Marketplace Contributor Jul 13, 2012

Adriene Hill: A few weeks ago, Ann-Marie Slaughter wrote a controversial piece in The Atlantic about women and our how we balance family and work. She got a lot of response — including this economic take, from commentator Diane Lim Rogers.

Diane Lim Rogers: Anne-Marie Slaughter recently wrote in The Atlantic a piece entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

My response: Of course we can’t have it all. And that’s a good thing.

I haven’t always felt this way. From my teens into adulthood I had a wish list:
College: Check.
Grad school: Check.
Marriage: Check.
Good job: Check.
Kids: Check, check, check, check.

Yup. Today I have four kids — and I work full time as an economist in Washington D.C.

But on the way to ticking all of these boxes, I didn’t really stop to think about why or how that superficial list translated into my internal happiness. It took me 20-plus years of marriage to realize that the best thing I could say about my marriage was how long it had lasted. That’s sort of like saying the best thing about the Bush tax cuts is how large they are and how long they have lost us so much revenue. (I have since gotten divorced.)

The mom in me may still feel pressure from society to have it all, to take care of everything. But the economist in me remembers the law of diminishing marginal utility, that if we could really have it all, whatever we had last obtained wouldn’t be worth anything to us.

Constraints that prevent us from having it all also force us to prioritize, to choose whatever gives us the greatest value, first. Individuals can’t do everything we are good at or even best at. A concept economists call “comparative advantage” applies here. I might have inherent absolute advantage in terms of my skills as an economist over some men and women who have more successful careers as economists than I. But my greatest comparative advantage — absolutely! — is as mom to my own kids.

That’s especially true now that they are ages 13 to 20, when they really need me, and not zero to seven when any smiling face with food at the ready would do. Being just “mom” is where I am both providing the greatest value and obtaining my greatest joy.

So women — and anyone — shouldn’t be sad about not being able to “have it all.” It only means we have to “settle for” having what makes us happiest.

Hill: Diane Lim Rogers is chief economist at the Concord Coalition.

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