The Economics of Parenthood, an interview with Susan Athey

Susan Athey is one of the most impressive young economists today.

At just 37-years-old she has been a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and currently Harvard University.

Last year, she was the first woman awarded the John Bates Clark Medal, an honor given every two years to the American economist under the age of 40 who has been deemed to have made the most significant contribution to economics.

In addition to her teaching and writing, Athey edits or co-edits several leading economic journals, works as a consultant to companies and is mom to Carleton, 4, and Annalise, about 20 months, with her husband Guido Imbens, also an economics professor at Harvard.

Having received her Ph.D. at 24 and earning tenure at two prestigious universities before 30, the pace of Athey’s success is dizzying but intentional.

“At each point I looked ahead to the time I wanted to have children and I realized I could work faster and harder in my 20s and I could be more flexible in my 30s and I would value my flexibility more in my 30s,” she said.

When it comes to managing such an impressive career and a young family, naturally, Athey turns to economics.

“Part of the way I’ve made my life work is I’ve been willing to delegate a fair bit of my household management,” Athey said. “I can work an extra five hours a week and use some of that money to get extra help in my household. That has allowed me to work more hours and not give up time with my kids.”

Athey recognizes that she is among a privileged group, and academics is one of the more demanding professions that still allows for a fair amount of flexibility, but she says other women can consider making similar choices.

“It’s very useful to sit down with a pencil and a paper and a calculator to see what the costs and benefits are of working a few extra hours or few less hours,” Athey said.

She said a lot of women think they can’t fit in any extra work or feel like they must do everything and shouldn’t have any help.

By really looking at the economics of running a home people could determine if it’s worth working a little bit more in order to buy some of your own time back by hiring help, she said. Similarly, couples should look at whether working more to afford child care is really an economical decision.

If couples can figure out a more creative child care arrangement, starting work at different times they could save on day care, she said.

Also, in the Internet age people have more opportunity to think more creatively about how to make money and have a flexible schedule.

“Today there are a lot of ways to make money … starting an eBay business, selling crafts on the Internet, there are a lot of customer service jobs that are able to happen remotely,” she said.

Athey said she isn’t too worried about the current economic climate.
“Within the horizon of a couple of years I think the economy will be fine,” she said. “We have a lot of safe guards in place. We’re not in a position where something like the Great Depression is going to happen again.”

“What gets tricky is if people have to move, if they have to sell their house now, if they lose their job. Those people could feel a lot of pain. The people with reasonable jobs and who don’t have to sell their house can sit tight.”