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Many EAs factor children’s effects on their personal impact when deciding whether to have them (example). To offer some insight for potential parents, I tried to summarize the best research I could find on parenthood’s impact on people’s productivity, though I was surprised at the lack of robust literature (especially more recently). The following information comes from four studies: one published in Science[1], one published in Nature[2], one from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis[3], and one published in Social Studies of Science[4]. They all focus on academics and quantitatively measure productivity with research output metrics (the footnotes contain more detail about each).

How parenting impacts productivity

TLDR: The trend for having one child seems to be a short-term reduction in productivity (median: 17%, mean: ~23%) for mothers that peters out after ~10 years. There is usually little effect on fathers, but fathers who are primary caregivers (or otherwise more engaged with their children) suffer similar short-term (<10 year) productivity losses. Each additional child seems to decrease short-term productivity by an additional 11%.

  • Science:
    • Short-term (<10 years after having children):
    • Consistent effects on mothers: The paper finds a ~17%, ~24%, and ~48% decrease in productivity[1] for those in computer science, business, and history, respectively. The authors propose that the different levels of cooperation in these fields may explain the variation in productivity impact—i.e., those in more cooperative fields may suffer lower productivity losses.
      • They also note their results likely underestimate the effects because their sample didn’t include parents who left academia (which may have been prompted by their children directly or indirectly)
    • Inconsistent effects on fathers lead the authors to conclude there is “no clear evidence” of a short-term productivity decrease for fathers.
    • Long-term (>10 years after having children):
    • Inconclusive results for both mothers and fathers.
  • Federal Reserve of St. Louis
    • Short-term (<12 years after having children):
    • Women’s productivity[3] decreased by 15%–17% on average. The total productivity cost of having one, two, or three preteens was 9.5%, 22%, and 33%.
    • “Men’s productivity is not associated with their family situation in an economically significant manner.”
    • Long-term (>12 years after having children):
    • Parenting has no effect on productivity for mothers or fathers, so long as they have their children on purpose after they turn 30 years old.
  • Social Studies of Science:
    • Overall:
    • 8% and 12% decline in research productivity and visibility[4], respectively, for men and women combined. For women, the decrease was 15%.
      • To illustrate the cumulative effect of this, mothers were 2 years behind their childless counterparts in the number of papers they published 18 years after having their children.

How to minimize productivity impacts

Have kids later

  • Economists who become mothers before 30 suffer a 13% decrease in overall (short- & long-term) productivity[3], whereas those having children after 30 do not (Fed of St. Louis).
  • Employment at an institution 100 ranks higher correlates with an additional 1-year delay before having children. However, this might be explained by personality: Perhaps, the type of people who wait to have children are the type of people who become employed at higher-ranked institutions (Science).

Take parental leave

  • Taking parental leave shorter than 1 month was associated with a 26.9% improvement in productivity in a US sample but had no statistically significant correlation in a non-US sample (Nature).
  • Taking parental leave for 1 to 3 months was associated with a 26.7% productivity improvement in the US sample and a 17.1% productivity improvement in the non-US sample (Nature).
  • Taking parental leave for 3 to 6 months was associated with a 17.8% productivity boost in the US sample and a 10.5% productivity improvement in the non-US sample (Nature).
  • In the US sample, the advantage disappeared after 6 months, while it disappeared only after 12 months in the non-US sample (Nature).
    • Leaves between 6 and 12 months in the non-US sample correlated with a 10.6% boost in productivity.

Be a lazier parent and divide labor between you and your partner

Whether the former will harm your children is another topic (see this 80k podcast episode for an argument it won’t)

  • In general, the more engaged parent academics are with their children, the lower their research productivity and impact[2] (Nature).
  • Mothers are usually more engaged parents: ~31% of assessed mothers were their children’s primary caregivers, while ~4% of fathers were (Nature).

Have kids on purpose

  • Women who unintentionally had children had a 13%–17% decrease in overall (short- & long-term) productivity[3], while there was no overall productivity decrease for those who intentionally had children after turning 30 (Fed of St. Louis).

Work in a cooperative field

  • Academics in fields with higher rates of collaboration have reduced productivity[1] losses from children. This link is not necessarily causal, however (Science).

Have fewer children

  • Each additional child decreased short-term productivity[3] by an additional 11%, on average (Fed of St. Louis).
  1. ^

    Productivity was measured by the total number of papers published.

  2. ^

    Research productivity was measured by total citations, and impact was measured by citations relative to other papers published in the same field and year.

  3. ^

    Productivity was measured by the total number of papers published, weighted by the impact of the journals they were published in.

  4. ^

    Research productivity was measured by academics' number of published papers, and visibility was measured by their citations per year and the impact of journals that published their papers.

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The most important effect of parenting on productivity is left out here. A whole new person is created, meaning a whole additional person's worth of productivity! And with only a two decade or so delay. Not to mention a whole additional person's worth of happiness, and of combating demographic decline. So while it may be true that in the short term additional children decrease productivity, in the long term (which is what we as EAs should be caring most about) each additional child massively increases productivity. 

But they could grow up to be an influencer, a patent troll, or even a lawyer. </sarcasm>

Seriously though, productivity is not inherently good, so there would need to be an adjustment to account for newborns who end up being productive in ways that are net harmful or only weakly positive. Meanwhile, the directional impact of the parent's productivity can be known with much more reliability.

Jason - fair point. 

Except that all psychological traits are heritable, so offspring of smart, conscientious, virtuous EAs are likely to be somewhat smarter, more conscientious, and more virtuous than average offspring.

Thanks for doing this! I was curious so I dug a bit more into the Federal Reserve paper. I think you are accurately reporting their conclusion, but the conclusion feels somewhat shaky to me.

First, they note that, without controls, people with children are generally more productive than the childless, not less:

They then introduce a number of different controls. The "The total productivity cost of having one, two, or three preteens was 9.5%, 22%, and 33%" statistic you report is one model, and it may be worth noting that the 9.5% number (= exp(−0.1003) − 1) is not significant at p = 0.1. Amusingly, the impact of getting tenure dwarfs the impact of children, causing an estimated 50% decrease in productivity:

They then introduce a difference-in-differences estimation "to remove any estimation bias related to time-invariant unobserved heterogeneity". They say of this model's results:

The estimate is negative, relatively small, and statistically not significant, implying that pregnancy, childbearing, and motherhood have no large effect on the mother’s research productivity in the first three years after the birth of her first child... The only statistically significant effect of fatherhood relates to tenure in column (6) of Table 9. Untenured men become substantially more productive after having a first child. Their output increases by 20%

I'm not sure why they chose to report their first model in the summary but not the second one. The cynical explanation is that they did this because only the first model returned significant results, although then I'm left wondering why they included the second model at all.

Anyway, my personal summary of this paper is something like "depending on how you slice the data, you can conclude anything from 'having kids is a mild cost' to 'having kids is a mild benefit', and it feels hard to confidently say much more."

(To be clear: I don't think you are citing this paper incorrectly, I just think the paper itself is reporting its results in a confusing way.)

divide labor between you and your partner

Is there any evidence as to whether a more equal division of labor reduces the overall loss in productivity, rather than merely rearranging the split of that loss between the two partners?

I did laugh at this — it's a helpful strategy for your career if you'd by default be doing more than half, and anti-helpful if not!

I could imagine benefits to overall productivity across the couple by allocating to whoever can most spare the time. When our childcare falls through, my husband and I work out who will handle what based on the timing of our meetings, who's done more lately, etc, rather than it defaulting to the mother.

Unfortunately, not in the studies I have read…

I would caution against leaning to heavily on only productivity impacts when deciding whether to have a child or not. I do not think this post intends to say this, but I worry this could be the takeaway for some readers and therefore thought it worthwhile to expand on. Something the material in this post leaves out is the effect of wanting to have children but deciding not to due to concerns about productivity. While this has not been studied to my knowledge, I would be concerned about studies on involuntary childlessness - my precursory understanding is that people who want children but do not have them are more likely to suffer mentally. Moreover, if you have kids and obsess about productivity, they will likely pick up on it - I have 2 examples of that (i.e. my own kids and how they very easily pick up on "daddy has to work")! I therefore think that issues around parenting and productivity should be navigated with a lot of care and deliberation. If nothing else - if you worry about productivity and decide against having kids I think you should strongly consider freezing some eggs and sperm to increase the chance that you can have kids later on if you regret your decision - treat your future self with compassion! One further idea might be to survey current EA parents if anyone regrets having children due to the impact on productivity.

That said, I think this article can be helpful for those of us that have children but are wondering about healthy ways to increase productivity. One tip from my side is to set a fixed number of hours to work each week that feels achievable. I do this and feel good about the work I completed while I can after than dedicate time to my family "productivity guilt free".

Thank you for bringing up other important considerations and limitations of these studies. You are right that, with this post, I don't intend to make any claims about the extent to which anyone should let productivity effects determine their decision whether or not to have children. I'm just hoping to help better inform those who factor it into their choice (although, again, you make a good point about these studies' failure to account for the counterfactual of people who want children deciding against it).

Thanks for writing this. 

I was curious about this claim, because I was not sure what the intended causal mechanism would be:

Taking parental leave shorter than 1 month does not mitigate productivity losses, but parental leave longer than 1 month and less than 12 months correlated with an 11%–17% productivity[2] improvement

But when I look at the chart in the citation it makes it look like <1 month leave does typically have positive impacts?

I'd also guess it's confounded by more intense careers and people who are more dedicated to spending a lot of time at work. I doubt you change outcomes much by taking a shorter leave, once your personality and career are already a given.

I see a small, non-statistically significant reduction for non-US women for <1 mo. But I'm not sure if any of the results for non-US women are statistically significant, and less than a month to six months all look fairly similar for the US sample.

Good catch; thank you very much. I misinterpreted the findings—an embarrassing mistake on my part. I’ve updated the post to address this.

This was a really interesting read. Anecdotally, I'd put in that since having my two children my dedication to the future has increased dramatically. I genuinely care about, and I will butcher this saying, planting trees the shade of which I will never sit under. 

Maybe I was a bad, amoral  person and now I have a personal interest in making a better world. Maybe this works only for me. But knowing the world I help build will be the one my children have to live in has certainly made me choose better career paths and projects, as well as adding rocket fuel to my motivation.

As always, mileage will vary significantly between people.

 I haven't yet looked at the papers cited, but aren't they probably hopelessly confounded?  This seems to be one of the areas where it's hardest to measure causal effects.

Nicholas - thanks for posting this helpful summary of these empirical studies.

I do find it somewhat sad and alarming that so many EAs seem to be delaying or avoiding having kids, out of fear that this will 'impair productivity'. 

Productivity-maxxing can be a false god - and this is something that's hard to understand until one becomes a parent.

Just as money sent to charities can vary 100x in terms of actual effectiveness, 'productivity' can vary hugely in terms of actual impact in the world. 

Lots of academic parents I know (including me) realized, after having kids, that they had been spending huge amounts of time doing stuff that seemed 'productive' or 'fun' at the time, but that wasn't actually aligned with their genuine long-term goals and values. Some of this time was spent on self-indulgent status-seeking, credentialism, careerism, workaholism, networking, etc. Some of it was spent on habit-forming but unfulfilling forms of leisure (TV, video games, light reading). Much of it was mating effort to find and retain a sexual partner(s). And some of it was spent on feeling depressed, anxious, etc, wondering about the meaning of life -- concerns that tend to evaporate when you start spending more time enjoying the company of your kids, when the 'meaning of life' becomes bittersweetly apparent.

Not sure how much to trust GPT's outputs here (I have not verified it), but I was a bit surprised to find that so many female Nobel prize recipients might (again, GPT might hallucinate) have had children. I think this is more towards anecdotal evidence, but might indicate that just counting number of articles leaves out important information. Perhaps the quality of work stays the same or is even increased by having children, even though the amount of work decreases? At least in my case with my kids, while my hours available for work has decreased, I definitely have not experienced a decrease in quality of my work, and if anything, I feel more invigorated and ideas come easily to me when I am not working.

NameFieldYearChildrenBefore/After
Carol W. GreiderPhysiology or Medicine2009YesAfter
Elizabeth H. BlackburnPhysiology or Medicine2009YesAfter
Ada E. YonathChemistry2009YesAfter
Doris LessingLiterature2007YesBefore
Françoise Barré-SinoussiPhysiology or Medicine2008NoN/A
Harriet A. WashingtonLiterature2007YesBefore
Leymah GboweePeace2011YesBefore
Linda B. BuckPhysiology or Medicine2004NoN/A
May-Britt MoserPhysiology or Medicine2014YesBefore
Olga TokarczukLiterature2018YesBefore
Orhan PamukLiterature2006YesBefore
Shirin EbadiPeace2003YesBefore
Svetlana AlexievichLiterature2015NoN/A
Tawakkol KarmanPeace2011YesBefore
Tu YouyouPhysiology or Medicine2015YesBefore
Wangari MaathaiPeace2004YesBefore
Wislawa SzymborskaLiterature1996NoN/A
Yoshinori OhsumiPhysiology or Medicine2016YesBefore
Ōe KenzaburōLiterature1994YesBefore
Alice MunroLiterature2013YesBefore

I also asked GPT to do the same for wealthy, self-made women:

NameNet WorthSource of WealthChildrenChildren Timing
Zhou QunfeiEstimated $12.8 billionLens Technology2Before
Diane HendricksEstimated $11 billionABC Supply7Before
Meg WhitmanEstimated $5.1 billioneBay, Hewlett Packard2Before
Judy FaulknerEstimated $6 billionEpic Systems3Before
Wu YajunEstimated $9.4 billionLongfor Properties1Before
RihannaEstimated $1.7 billionMusic, Fenty Beauty1After
Kim KardashianEstimated $1.2 billionReality TV, Cosmetics4After
Whitney Wolfe HerdEstimated $1.3 billionBumble1After


If not already obvious, I am probably at risk of some degree of motivated reasoning given that I already have 2 kids!

This seems like the kind of place GPT would make up things when the answer wasn't on the web, and I would basically ignore this.

If someone thinks this is worth paying attention to, let me know and I'll spot-check some of the rows?

I did do 1 or 2 spot checks (felt like this was closer to doing nothing than something so didn't detail this in my comment above). It seemed like the Nobel institute or some other web page had bios on all recipients and that these bios often mentioned kids. But I am quite unsure.

Edit/update: I randomly checked Ohsumi and not sure if GPT is ~racist but it included Ohsumi who it seems probably identifies as male. So that does is at least one mistake in the tables above.

Extremely minor and pedantic correction: Ōe Kenzaburō is male, not female: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenzabur%C5%8D_%C5%8Ce  (I don't think that makes any significant difference to the point you're making, I just hate letting mistakes rest uncorrected!) 

Does "before/after" mean the kids came before the Nobel, or the Nobel came before the kids? (probably what you want is the work that earned the Nobel, which is harder to time.)

Hi Julia that is a very good question and I realize an omission from my side. "Before" means the person had at least one child before the receipt of the prize. The data is straight from GPT and maybe I could have prompted it to do as you suggest and only count children that were likely to demand time during the work which led to their achievement. If this data looks interesting and have the potential to affect major decisions, I would advise to double check GPT's work. I included it partially because the results surprised me (I would have thought many more recipients would be childless) and also because I am constantly in awe of what GPT can produce.

Thank you so much! I've been wondering about exactly this... but wasn't productive enough to research it yet. 😅

It's always good to look at the data, and I admire that. So this is absolutely not a criticism of the post, but just something to consider in the context of this discussion. 

But to get the full picture, we also need to factor in the impact the children could have. I have no evidence to support this, but isn't it likely that children who are born of ethical effective altruists, and who receive loving attention from their parents, are more likely to themselves make a positive impact on the world, compared to "average" children? 

And the possible achievements of one child, in one full lifetime, vastly outweigh a small drop in productivity of one parent over a short part of their career. 

It seems to me that the most important consideration is to raise moral children and to help them understand the important of altruism, ideally showing by example. Anything that takes away from this feels counterproductive, even if it might briefly moderately increase the parent's productivity. 

There may be exceptions when the parent is working on something extremely important or in a position of extreme influence which the child is unlikely to attain - or if you're doing something at a uniquely critical time. Maybe it's not a great idea to take a year of parental leave if you're a leading AI Governance researcher right now. But these would be quite exceptional. 

Executive summary: Having children leads to short-term productivity declines for mothers and more engaged fathers, but the effects diminish after about 10 years. Delaying parenthood, taking parental leave, and having fewer children can mitigate the productivity hit.

Key points:

  1. Mothers suffer median 17% productivity loss after having a child, fading after 10 years. Fathers unaffected unless primary caregivers.
  2. Each additional child adds ~11% more productivity loss.
  3. Delaying children until after 30 avoids long-term productivity declines.
  4. Taking 1+ month parental leave (up to 1 year) boosts productivity 11-17%.
  5. Being less engaged as a parent reduces impact on productivity.
  6. Having children intentionally rather than accidentally reduces productivity hit.
  7. Working in more collaborative fields like computer science mitigates productivity declines.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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