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 intense competition does more than serve as a giant sieve for college admissions; it is also a 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.