Psychological neoteny and higher education: Associations with delayed parenthood
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2007; 69: 237-240
In a recent Medical Hypotheses editorial, I suggested the name psychological neoteny (PN) to refer to the widely-observed phenomenon that adults in modernizing liberal democracies increasingly retain many of the attitudes and behaviors traditionally associated with youth. I further suggested that PN is a useful trait for both individuals and the culture in modernizing societies; because people need to be somewhat child-like in their psychology order to keep learning, developing and adapting to the rapid and accelerating pace of change. Thirdly, I put forward the hypothesis that the major cause of PN in modernizing societies is the prolonged duration of formal education. Here I present a preliminary empirical investigation of this hypothesis of psychological neoteny. Marriage and parenthood are indicative of making a choice to ‘settle down’ and thereby move on from the more flexible lifestyle of youth; and furthermore these are usually commitments which themselves induce a settling down and maturation of attitudes and behaviors. A sevenfold expansion of participation in UK higher education up to 2001 was reflected in delay in marriage and parenthood. Increasing number of years of education is quantitatively the most important predictor of increasing age of the mother at the time of her first birth: among women college graduates about half are aged 30 or older at the time of their first birth – a rise of 400% in 25 years. Parenthood is associated with a broad range of psychologically ‘maturing’ and socially-integrating effects in both men and women. However, the economic effect is different in men and women: after parenthood men are more likely to have a job and work more hours while women change in the opposite direction. The conclusion is that psychological neoteny is indeed increasing, and mainly as a consequence of the increasing percentage of school leavers going into higher education. But at present it is unclear whether this trend is overall beneficial or harmful; and the answer may be different for men and women.
Causes and consequences of psychological neoteny
In a recent Medical Hypotheses editorial, I suggested the name Psychological Neoteny (PN) to refer to the widely-observed phenomenon that adults in modernizing liberal democracies increasingly retain many of the attitudes and behaviours traditionally associated with youth . ‘Neoteny’ refers to the biological phenomenon whereby development is delayed such that juvenile characteristics are retained into maturity.
I further suggested that PN is a useful trait for both individuals and the culture in modernizing societies. Modern cultures are characterized by rapid and accelerating pace of change, which demands a much higher degree of cognitive flexibility than traditional societies of the past . As a result, it helps if people retain a somewhat child-like psychology. Cognitive flexibility is useful when we need to keep developing, adapting and learning. Of course the positive benefits of maturity are also delayed, and the downside to PN includes some less desirable faults of youth – such as irresponsibility, short attention span, and novelty-seeking.
Thirdly, I put forward the hypothesis that the major cause of PN in modernizing societies is the prolonged duration of formal education, when an ever-increasing proportion of the school leavers go straight on to attend colleges and universities, and attend these institutions for increasing numbers of years. Formal education rewards youthful traits such as cognitive flexibility and the drive to acquire now knowledge and skills . Higher education also delays key life experiences which tend to induce psychological maturity, such as marriage and parenthood.
Here I present a preliminary empirical investigation of my hypothesis that psychological neoteny is mainly caused by higher education.
It is obvious that an increasing proportion of school leavers are moving on to higher education in all modern liberal democracies, and in many countries the expansion of participation in higher education has been profound (Table 1).
Percentage of under 21 year old entrants to higher education (age participation index; API) for UK 1961–2001
Date API (%)
The sevenfold expansion of API in UK higher education up to 2001 was reflected in delay in marriage (Table 2) and parenthood (Table 3) with an increasing average age of mothers at the birth of their first child.
Social trends 34 – http://www.statistics.gov.uk – average age at marriage and divorce: England and Wales
Date Age males Age females
1971 24.6 22.6
1981 25.4 23.1
1991 27.5 25.5
2001 30.6 28.4
Average age in years at first marriage for males and females.
From social trends 34 – http://www.statistics.gov.uk – average age in years of mother by birth order: England and Wales, first child
Date Age (years)
Marriage and parenthood are indicative of making a choice to ’settle down’ and thereby move on from the more flexible lifestyle of youth; and furthermore these are usually commitments which themselves induce a settling down and maturation of attitudes and behaviors. First marriage and age of first child are correlated , but parenthood has probably replaced marriage as the main transitional stage in modern societies like the USA .
The most important predictor of increasing age of the mother at the time of her first birth is the number of years of education . For example, in the USA the median age at first birth has increased rapidly among women with 12 or more years of education . In 1969, 10.2% of college graduate women were age 30 or older at the time of their first birth but in 1994 this had risen over 400% to 45.5%. By contrast, among women with only 9–11 years of education this rise was just 50%, with only 2.5% of first births in 1994 occurred at age 30 plus.
It seems clear, therefore, that the proportion of school leavers going into higher education has increased massively, and also that these extra years of education lead to later marriage and parenthood.
The psychologically ‘maturing’ and socially-integrating effect of parenthood on attitudes and behavior of married parents is obvious and uncontroversial , especially for women – who remain the main carers for children . But the effect of parenthood for men seems also to be significant, with reduced socializing with friends, and increased participation in extended family activities, service activities, churches, and hours at work .
There also seem to be significant differences between men and women. Men are more likely to have a job and work more hours after parenthood, while women’ behavior changes in the opposite direction (Table 4).
Effects of parenthood on employed work 1992–1993, USA
In paid employment (%) Hours of work/week (h)
Women – no children 78 39.2
Women – with children 68 34.6
Men – no children 88 46.4
Men – with children 92 47.3
From . Expressed as mean averages.
So, delayed parenthood among college graduates will indeed tend to delay psychological maturity, and therefore be a cause of psychological neoteny.
It seems that PN is probably economically advantageous in women, because delayed parenthood results in women contributing more in the labour market. Conversely PN may be (to a lesser extent) economically detrimental in men. One possible implication is that, strictly in economic terms, it might be beneficial for women to have children at an older age than men – reversing the traditional pattern. Of course, such a shift may be unpopular and would have other disadvantages.
Clearly, this small and selective survey of the literature does not constitute a rigorous test of the hypothesis that higher education causes psychological neoteny, but is intended as a first look at some illustrative data to check that it is broadly consistent with the predications of the theory – which it is.
A more thorough investigation could address the literature in a systematic fashion, checking other plausible proxy measures of maturity (such as age of first marriage, job stability, social interactions); as well as focusing on more directly psychological measures of the effect of higher education (such as surveys of attitudes and behaviours). Most importantly, the hypothesized causal relationship between retention of youthful psychological traits and subsequent economic and social success needs to be measured directly.
In conclusion, it seems likely that psychological neoteny is increasing mainly as a consequence of the increasing percentage of school leavers going into higher education. The consequences of PN are most evident in relation to women because their participation has grown rapidly over fifty years until women usually constitute the majority of students in higher education. Also the economic effect of parenthood seems greater for women than for men. Psychological neoteny may on average significantly increase an average woman’s economic productivity, but somewhat reduce that of men.
At present it is unclear whether the trend for retaining youthful attitudes and behaviours is overall beneficial or harmful. There are probably social advantages from a population retaining the cognitive flexibility to cope with (or indeed enjoy) rapid change of jobs, locations and friends; and there are economic benefits from delayed parenthood in women. But there will also be social disadvantages from delayed maturity of adults, perhaps impairing social integration among men, and reducing population fertility levels. And, at the individual and personal level, the costs and benefits of PN may be different for men and women, and for people with different priorities.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of the late Martin Trow, Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Martin died February 24 2007 aged 80. For the past few years he was my frequent e-mail pen-friend; a delightful correspondent who combined youthful vitality and curiosity with the wisdom and knowledge of maturity. He was the acknowledged authority on the transition from elite to mass higher education, and its consequences. I got the idea of psychological neoteny from some of Martin’s off-the-cuff remarks about universities in relation to modern society.
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