This year, the birthrate in the United States has fallen yet again, to 1.7 children per woman—well below the 2.1 replacement rate. With the exception of Hungarian President Viktor Orban, most leaders in the developed world seem to shrug at this news and focus on other matters.
Part of the collective indifference to this otherwise-alarming statistic is the way it’s treated. Most often, a low birthrate is framed as a long-term economic problem that might affect the labor market, pensions, productivity, and the like. Occasionally, it’s seen as an environmental issue and not really a problem since each new human being produces whole landfills of garbage and leaves a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint over a lifetime. Because people often resist the suggestion that they have any responsibility to give back to society by having children, and many will be dead or close to dead by the time these kind of effects have become disastrous, many people take little interest in the demographic crisis.
What is more pressing and relevant, however, is how this trend will affect the cultures and general attitudes of the developed world. Not only does low fertility lead to a society dominated by the elderly, with young people shouldering a heavier economic and cultural burden, but it also means a society increasingly dominated by childless adults. This latter development warrants far more attention than it normally receives, because it will determine the character of American life.
Not Having Kids Makes You a Different Kind of Person
Having children makes an enormous difference for the average adult in both positive and negative ways. Unfortunately, the more advanced a society is, the more people seem to emphasize the negatives. If individuals hope to be decent parents, they must forego many material freedoms and benefits they used to enjoy. For example, parents must provide and work for their family as a breadwinner or caretaker. They can’t just spend all their income on themselves, or be unemployed long-term.
This reality affects every other aspect of a person’s lifestyle. For most parents, certain forms of recreation are curbed or impossible. To travel, the must make extensive arrangements for their children and feel pressure not to be gone too long. The same occurs if they want to go out for a night on the town with friends.
No longer can they safely binge-watch episodes of “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones”—unless, of course, the mother has a newborn and is nursing all hours of the night. No longer can a father play “Skyrim” for so many hours straight. No longer can a mother enjoy brunch with friends after a wild night of partying. These activities are not technically impossible but, practically speaking, they require much more energy than parents normally have, and if indulged usually would lead to defaulting on a parent’s main priority: caring for their children.
Parenthood can halt or significantly delay certain aspirations. The detached contemplative life of the mystic or philosopher becomes difficult with children needing your attention. Similarly, parents cannot devote their whole lives to helping the poor and downtrodden as missionaries or members of the Peace Corps. The risky and often life-consuming careers of an entrepreneur, artist, or inventor also become less feasible for parents whose business, masterpiece, and new product are their children.
There are, of course, exceptions to this, where people seem to have it all and try to maintain the childless life post-kids with the help of nannies and maids from developing countries. For most people, though, children require serious tradeoffs.
Considering all this, it’s no surprise that many people choose not to have families. But there are also great benefits to parenthood, both personally and to society. Children can bring deep joy and purpose to a parent in a way that no career, no lover, no trip abroad, no college degree can. Even the restrictions that come with parenting have the welcome effect of regulating one’s habits and teaching endless lessons in patience and humility.
Perhaps the most unappreciated benefit is how children frequently make their parents much more social and outward-oriented. Children connect parents to their community in a multitude of ways. They often force adults to break out of their small circle of friends to find other parents for playdates and affirmation.
Many adults never go their public library, or to parks, or to community events until they have kids. Many never think about the church they attend, the schools and daycares in their neighborhood, or the levels of safety in most public places before children. Nor do they really look up information on the local zoo, museums, or performance centers. And most childless adults probably don’t look at grocery shopping, walking through a mall, or driving around the neighborhood as parents do.
Political Implications of Being a Non-Parent
Naturally, the different experiences of parent and non-parents frequently create opposing outlooks on life. Mainly, it’s easier for non-parents to favor abstractions and change while parents tend to favor concreteness and stability. This is one reason why millennials (most of whom are non-parents) are much more comfortable embracing once-extreme positions in politics and morality, care more about climate change and perfect social equality than about the livelihoods of blue-collar workers and the fate of public schools, regularly switch careers, identities, and values (they are always “in transition”), and think of people on the screen as more real than the people they see and talk to every day.
By contrast, parents tend to seek what is solid and safe. They want to live in a place that’s predictable and wholesome and allow their children to satisfy their need for surprises. This is why they flock to the suburbs where the houses all look the same, streets line up along a perfect grid, and the main sources of entertainment can include shopping at chain stores and watching high school football.
In terms of politics, parents tend to prefer moderation and familiarity. They shun controversy and activism and embrace the status quo. Politicians who promise big changes and use angry rhetoric do poorly with parents who sense a threat, however smart or visionary they may be. In discussions, parents are more likely to avoid politics and stick to family photos, parent memes, and inspirational quotes. Whenever people recall the golden age of civility in past decades, they are recalling a time where the majority of voters were parents and preferred a much more subdued brand of politics.
Parents and Non-Parents Can Learn from Each Other
Overall, a thriving culture requires both parents and non-parents. The latter bring innovation, dynamism, and social progress, while the former hold the community together by preserving traditions and enabling relationships. It’s fair to say that the United States and much of the developed world have become prosperous because of great individuals as well as great families and communities. Of course, the two are often interdependent—families provide the foundation necessary to raise a great individual, husbands and wives mutually push each other further than they ever would have gone alone.
In societies with too many childless adults, however, communities start to dissipate and people become disconnected from one another, their immediate surroundings, and even themselves. Without the reality check of children, many adults inhabit a world of speculation where everything is subjective and all things are possible; they “dwell in possibility” and are increasingly progressive in their politics. Needless to say, this kind of life easily leads to the stress of constant transitioning, conflicts with others with opposing ideas, addictions to various forms of escape, and depression from the loss of meaning and identity.
Despite liberal fears of conservatives making “The Handmaid’s Tale” a reality, Americans never really had to worry about the extreme of too many parents. For most of the country’s history, they had a choice between a healthy balance of parents and non-parents, and a progressive bias completely in favor of non-parents.
The declining birthrate suggests Americans today prefer the latter, which has already started to affect American culture by marginalizing families even further. Forget the pensions and overcrowding at retirement homes, civil life will become weirder, more unintelligible, and chaotic—and the days of women shouting their abortion, the Green New Deal, and the candidacy of Beto O’Rourke will seem normal by comparison.
Considering this reality, parents may want to fight back and bring other adults to their side. Otherwise, they will have far more to whine and worry about than dirty diapers and their children leaving their shoes all over the place.