Record numbers of U.S. adults are pursuing child-free lives. Are they selfish, worthy of pity — or building a better future for us all?
In recent months, the millennial generation — that piñata with a never-ending supply of candy for anyone with a decent swing — has been thrown into its latest crucible: homeownership. As it slowly shifts its focus to Americans in their late 20s and early 30s, the housing market is working to accommodate this rising group of aspiring homebuyers. One thing many of them are not focused on, realtors are finding, is space for future children. For some, it’s an unprecedented demographic — young couples who aren’t interested in having children — and it’s affecting properties all over the country. These millennial couples often seek smaller houses and condos in urban areas, with close proximity to jobs, restaurants, and friends. As priorities and preferences shift, our collective sense of the ideal home may be forced to diversify, too. For a handful of reasons, including the increasingly optional matter of parenthood, the four-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot colonial set deep in the lush, sprawling suburbs may not be the universally coveted dream it once was.
In May, Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan published a piece on why women decide to not have children. It relied on a mix of reader responses and academic studies, creating a kind of mosaic of childless — or “child-free,” as some adults without children prefer to be called — women. In her article, Khazan cites a 2014 study from Wayne State University that found that “when women discussed the reasons for choosing to be childfree, they overwhelmingly focused on the benefits of their freedom and autonomy.” Such freedom entailed being able to travel, pursue their careers, further their education, and retain a “get up and go” lifestyle.
Most intriguingly, the Atlantic piece discusses the research of Lonnie Aarssen and Stephanie Altman, researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario. Aarssen and Altman argue that, in past generations, having children was hardly a choice at all for most women. The lack of widespread, reliable birth control plus the intense pressure to start a family left the woman’s prerogative moot or muted. These factors, the researchers’ thinking goes, were major reasons the vast majority of women in the mid- and late-20th century had children — including those who wouldn’t have otherwise.
They speculate that some of these women who didn’t want children but had them anyway bequeathed a reluctance to procreate to their kids, who “inherited genes from female ancestors who were not attracted to a life goal that involved motherhood, but were nevertheless forced to endure it.” These daughters, many now reaching adulthood, “can now freely realize the lifestyle and life course goals that their maternal ancestors wished for, but were denied because of patriarchal subjugation.” In a paradoxical twist, these mothers may have passed down an aversion to motherhood. It’s a provocative thesis, but there’s also a sacrificial poetry to it: the idea that one generation accepted motherhood so that the next could reject it if their dreams led them elsewhere.
The invention of domesticity
Interested in exploring reasons for the rise in childlessness that went beyond headlines, trends, and antagonisms, I sought out the larger historical arc of childbearing in America. What I found was that many of the features we take for granted as facts about children and families started with the Industrial Revolution. As it turns out, the era is something like year zero for everything we know — or that we think we know — about having and raising children. Around the turn of the 19th century, as Western countries shifted from agrarian societies to industrial ones, the family structure was rent apart. Men used to work at home or on their farms, weaving, smithing, and tilling (with wives often engaged in their own profitable crafts, including sewing and needlework). But the mechanization of production suddenly forced them out of the house, each and every day, to the factories, plants, and mills that drove the new age.
Just like that, men were wrenched away from daily life in the home. As the period progressed, the space gradually morphed in the popular imagination, becoming a “domestic sphere” inhabited by a mother and her children. It is during this historical moment, in the early 1800s, when a familial myth was born: maternal instinct. The Industrial Revolution’s new division of responsibility necessitated a reconfiguration of the family unit, and Western cultures had to adapt. So they retrofitted special traits onto women, now exclusively responsible for raising children. These women, the incipient myth suggested, were biologically hardwired to rear children. It was this gendered instinct that made them uniquely suited to their new role as a family’s sole caretaker.
As French philosopher and historian Elizabeth Badinter laid out in her 1981 work “The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct,” maternal instinct and “mother love” vacillated in France over several centuries based on a number of factors, including the father's participation in parenting. She ultimately finds the concept to be a social construct rather than a biological trait.
Journalist Laura Kipnis echoed this view in her 2015 essay “Maternal Instincts,” writing that “the new line was that such arrangements were handed down by nature.” This was the moment when the notion of the preternatural mother-child bond — that primordial desire to love, protect, and sacrifice for one’s child — first took root. Over time, presumably to give it the patina of inviolable truth, we ascribed a scientific, “biological” basis for what were really just cultural mores. Such beliefs, Kipnis writes, “exist as social conventions of womanhood at this moment in history” — whether the 19th century or today — “not as eternal conditions.” One way to keep gender roles in place, it would seem, is to convince an entire civilization that they are embedded in our genes.
Never mind that the real reason households and parental roles were being irrevocably transformed had to do with rapid changes in the economy. The magical thinking on a mass scale was a way to reconcile oneself to change and powerlessness. If husbands were forced through labor’s new demands out of the home, and women, now assuming all the child-raising responsibilities, were consigned fully within it, then this was just the “natural way.” Allowing any flexibility for stronger or weaker parenting instincts from one woman to the next — say, a kind of continuum — would be too inconvenient to the myth (not to mention a challenge to an economic structure that’s largely still in place today).
For those not tuned in to the drama of childless homebuying, the news that Americans and Europeans are putting fewer and fewer buns in the oven may come with some measure of cognitive dissonance. But just so we have a clear understanding of what’s really at stake when it comes to the new birth dearth, let’s dig into the numbers.
The Total Fertility Rate measures the average number of children each woman in a given country bears during her lifetime. According to 2017 estimates from the CIA’s World Factbook, America’s TFR this year is 1.87 (due to infant mortality, TFR must be around 2.1 to maintain population). Figures in Europe were even lower: 1.45 in Germany, 1.43 in Greece, 1.5 in Spain, and 1.44 in Italy. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis found that in 2016, America’s general fertility rate — which measures the number of women aged 15 to 44 who have children in a given year — slipped to 62 births per 1,000 women, a record low since measuring began.
Much of the criticism for this downturn in childbearing is being heaped at the feet of the millennial generation, those individuals born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. A study on our declining fertility rates released in 2015 by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank focusing on social policy research, drew particular attention to the issue of childless millennials. It found that in 2012, there were only 948 births per 1,000 American women in their 20s. This was, according to the study’s authors, “by far the slowest pace of any generation of young women in U.S. history.”
The institute’s researchers parsed the data further and found some striking possible explanations for the drop in childbirths. For white women in their 20s, 81% of the decrease in fertility could be attributed to declining marriage rates. The connection between marriage and having children is particularly strong among this demographic, and as more and more white women stay single through their 20s, fewer become mothers. For black and Hispanic women, on the other hand, by far the biggest driver was a decrease in birth rates among unmarried women — it explained 76% and 63% of the fertility decrease, respectively.
The authors theorized that the recession was a major factor in the overall drop in fertility. According to the team of researchers, economic uncertainty caused by the recession and its aftermath led young women to delay both marriage and pregnancy and also slowed immigration (immigrants typically have higher birthrates than U.S. natives). “If fertility does not rebound from 2012 levels, U.S. women will continue to have fewer births in their twenties,” the authors concluded. “Many questions remain about family formation in the postrecession economy.”
In pointing largely to economic factors, the authors of the Urban Institute study took a more carefully considered tack than most (though they certainly aren’t alone — a less academic 2016 survey by NerdWallet points out that for the average millennial, the cost of a baby’s first year could eat up half of one’s household income). Typically, though, when politicians and cultural commentators talk about young adults not having children, they do so with an air of moral disapproval.
The portrayals, by now, are well worn. They’re immature, selfish, and narcissistic. Men raised on Adam Sandler vehicles and Judd Apatow comedies suffer from an arrested development coddled by their own cultural touchstones. Or perhaps the sacrifice is simply too great — just barely grasping the reins of financial and emotional independence in their mid- to late-20s, millennials must be unable or unwilling to shoulder the more formidable costs of raising a child. When the conversation turns to older, 30-something millennials, it’s often driven by entrenched caricatures of ruthless careerists, heterosexual couples on lavish vacations, and, as author Meghan Daum put it in the introduction to “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids,” “overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.”
The chorus of denunciation isn’t just limited to American pundits, either. In 2015, Pope Francis stood before an audience in St. Peter’s Square and shared his views on Italy’s declining fertility rates. “A society with a greedy generation that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” he said. “The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiples: it is enriched, not impoverished.”
By suggesting that childless adults are, above all, selfish, these stereotypes play into another conventional wisdom: that having children is an act of social altruism. Between the columns, studies, and baby boomer hand-wringing, a picture begins to emerge of an underlying belief in America that having children fulfills an unspoken social contract. Parents are propagating the species, rearing the next generation, and meeting their obligations as well-adjusted adults.
Except — wait a minute. We are not living out the plot of “Children of Men.” Contrary to the speechifying from politicians and thought leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, the human population couldn’t be further from decline. Having reached 7 billion in 2011, it is projected to top 9.8 billion by 2050. On a planet with billions of people pumping toxic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while fiercely competing for resources, our biological imperative comes very much into question.
As we speak, overpopulation directly causes or contributes to food and water shortages, starvation, environmental degradation, the depletion of natural resources, species extinction, and, of course, climate change — that force multiplier that exacerbates all the other threats. Despite his sour reputation, author Jonathan Franzen had a point when he wrote in a travel essay for The New Yorker last year, “It’s true that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children.”
In 1900 — a few decades or so after we essentially invented the maternal instinct, remember – there were 1.5 billion people on the planet; by 1950, only 2.5 billion. Since then, the human population has nearly tripled. In just a few generations, our circumstances have shifted drastically. It’s possible that our ethos, as a society, has simply not had enough time to catch up with such a runaway population.
The case for not having children is no longer an argument reserved for misanthropes and Poison Ivy types. Until a dystopian fertility epidemic strikes the planet, our population will continue to rise, not just steadily but at a stratospheric pace. So let’s suspend existential griping about the biological imperative: The fate of the species is secure. In the meantime, it seems worthwhile to interrogate the social contract that nudges all of us to have children and see if we can’t write a new, more balanced one.
Statistically, as a person’s level of educational attainment goes up, the average number of children they have goes down. This has long been attributed to things like career ambition and access to good health care and family-planning resources. But it’s actually part of a bigger trend — one that can’t be fully appreciated if we only look at the U.S.
According to IndexMundi, a site that compiles country data, there is a strong negative correlation between literacy and fertility rates worldwide. Crosschecking bears this out. The countries with the highest literacy rates in the world, including places like Poland, Belarus, Estonia, Ukraine, Hungary, and others in central and Eastern Europe also have the world’s lowest birth rates. While literacy rates are often used as a proxy for a country’s affluence and the quality of its government services and infrastructure, that’s not the case here. These countries aren’t the world’s wealthiest nor are they among those with the best health care. In this case, literacy may not be so much a sign of other societal forces as a force in and of itself, a skill that creates agency in individuals. And, it would appear, the acquisition of agency causes more women to have fewer children or no children at all.
In the U.S., meanwhile, declining fertility rates in some groups are tied to a form of financial agency. “Nonmarital childbearing is associated with lower education and family income and worse outcomes for children,” according to the Urban Institute study mentioned earlier, which also indicates that the number of unmarried black and Hispanic women in their 20s who had children dropped sharply from 2007 to 2012. This has turned out to be a boon for these communities as single parenthood exacerbates family inequality, especially among those already at a socioeconomic disadvantage.
By not having children, these single black and Hispanic women are breaking a cycle that’s long left them at a disadvantage with their wealthier white counterparts who have children later in life and only after marriage. In this context, not having children has turned out to be a way to fight stubborn inequalities and open oneself up to brighter, heretofore unexplored futures. When specific fertility patterns perpetuate financial inequality, inhibit educational attainment, and inexorably limit horizons, what does straying from those patterns represent? In a word, freedom.
Virtues of the child-free
There are other, more subtle reasons that the longstanding shibboleths on not having children ought to change. Contrary to easy stereotypes, child-free adults find plenty to do besides horde wealth and jaunt around the world. A piece published in The Economist in July 2017 looked at how adults without children gave back to society in the absence of raising a child. It cites a German study that found that 42% of charitable foundations are started by childless people, who make up roughly 11% of the worldwide adult population. Along the same lines, 48% of married childless adults age 55 and older had set up wills entrusting some money to charities. For parents, the number drops to 12%.
In this way, child-free people may be helping to provide a counterweight to the increasing economic inequality in the U.S. and throughout the West. Plus, they’re using their greater freedom to advocate for causes that parents often don’t have the time to carry the baton on.
But childless adults don’t just pay it forward through advocacy and charitable contributions. As the childless Franzen noted in The New Yorker, the sobering logic is that not having children is one of the most effective choices a person can make to fight climate change and the mass extinction of nonhuman species. It’s certainly the single most impactful way to reduce one’s carbon footprint.
In today’s hyperpolarized climate, there’s probably no shortage of counterpunches to this type of conservationist argument: that it’s anti-humanist, narrow-minded, or whiffs of virtue-signaling. But this doesn't have to be a bitter clash between values.
The choice to either have or not have children is not a landscape with a moral high ground, but rather one of hills and valleys that represent nuances of circumstance, lifestyle, and values. What seems most worth remembering is that both having and foregoing children come with benefits and costs. While the moral good of having children has never been in doubt, today there is real social value in not having children, too.
Like the myth of maternal instinct, our attitudes toward childbearing are still too often culturally constructed. Our utter lack of historical perspective has allowed a sort of cultural amnesia to set in and make us more vulnerable to social pressures. We tend to think of childlessness as uncommon, something that has only recently become more viable as a life choice. In truth, for many Western countries, childlessness was actually more prevalent in the early 20th century than it is today. It was only from around the 1920s to the 1960s, with the Silent Generation and the baby boomers, that childlessness became rare. Yet we treat this ephemeral period of history as though it stretched back to the Middle Ages.
Here’s the thing: Maybe Pope Francis had a point back in 2015. Maybe there is an element of selfishness for some millennials in their choice not to have kids (many, we must bear in mind, have no choice at all in the matter). But what’s wrong with unlocking ourselves from a specific, predetermined destiny? Shouldn’t we be free by now to throw ourselves into any number of pursuits, including virtuous ones? As novelist Lionel Shriver wrote in her essay “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” “prosperity may naturally lead any well-off citizenry to the final frontier: the self, whose borders are as narrow or infinite as we make them.” Looked at any number of ways, having children simply isn’t the social responsibility it once was; it’s an exclusively personal choice with near-exclusively personal consequences. Our borders are up to us.
But as the recent alarm over millennial couples buying child-free homes demonstrates, we’ve got a long way to go before society accepts that level of autonomy. While a healthy balance between parents and adults without children is probably the best prescription for a planet already buckling under the weight of our soaring population, that narrative just doesn’t produce the friction on which the media ecosystem thrives. So look past the panic over the childless millennial, and you'll find men and women simply living lives that don't, and never did, look like convenient myths.
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