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On Having Children
The Most Private Choice We Make Has Potent Public Consequences
When future historians look back on the last half-century, I suspect they will pass over war, terror, and populism to settle on infertility as the decisive event of the age. For the first time since the bubonic plague in the 14th century, the world’s human population is about to shrink — a process that has already begun in many countries. The correlates to the decline are well known: affluence, urbanization, women’s education, abortion and easy access to contraceptives. But identifying hard causes is difficult. Gigantic trends touching on the survival of ancient cultures — and even of our species — get entangled with social pressures and moral ideals. At the same time, one must reckon with the secret dreams and expectations of solitary individuals of every class. The result is uncertainty.
People stopped having children when life has gotten good. Switzerland is possibly the wealthiest nation on Earth, with a high-trust, homogeneous population ranked near the top of the happiness index. There are no obvious material or psychological barriers to reproduction, but the Swiss birth rate, at 1.5 children per woman, falls short of the 2.1 needed to replenish the country’s human stock. Italy has the third largest economy in the European Union as well as a sunny climate and delightful lifeways. Yet Italy is a leader in the global depopulation race — by 2050, 6 million fewer Italians will be enjoying that magnificent weather. Japan, another rich, tightly-knit society, may lose 20 million inhabitants by 2050 — that’s 45 times the lives lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wiped out in one generation.
But this isn’t only a question of rich societies going off on a hedonistic binge. People have also stopped having children when life is terrible. Cuba is a political and economic basket case; the birth rate there has plummeted. The same holds true for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova and Ukraine, poor nations all. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite the cozy lockdowns, led to a “baby bust.” It may seem intuitive that hard times should reduce the birth rate, but now we are also saying that the causes of infertility are too much wealth and too much poverty — which, though not really a contradiction, feels a little like having it both ways. Historically, poverty never stopped the human race from making babies. South Korea ranked among the poorest countries in 1950, when the birth rate per woman was over 5; today, with a powerhouse economy, the South Koreans are virtually going extinct.
Here in the U.S., we tended to place the burden of reproduction on God and faith. When we came upon a large family two generations ago, we would remark, “They must be Catholics.” A generation later the same was said of Mormons. Today, however, both Catholics and Mormons have slipped below the critical 2.1 threshold. In a narcissistic age, we have refashioned deity after our own image and likeness: his/her/their commandments sound suspiciously like the pleasures we hope — with any luck — to indulge in. We have come to worship a shimmering spirit called “happiness,” defined as equal parts sensuality and smugness. And since studies tell us that “spouses who raise children are less happy than childless spouses,” we have no choice but to sacrifice our offspring on the altar of this jealous god.
Consequences of a Barren World
Sporadic attempts have been made to understand what life will look like under the conditions of a population crash: see, for example, “Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline,” or alternately, “Decline and Prosper!: Changing Global Birth Rates and the Advantages of Fewer Children.” These are futile exercises. We have never been there before. While we can guess where most of the pieces will be positioned at the start, we have no clue how the game will play out. All that follows, therefore, is speculation — and from where I stand, speculatively, things look grim.
For instance, the welfare state requires an endless supply of young people to produce more, consume more, and generate ever more taxes for bureaucrats to distribute. A prolonged shortage of young bodies will stress the social safety net to the breaking point. Expensive retirement and health insurance schemes are likely to collapse. The marginal will slip into poverty — the poor will grow desperate — but government will lack the funds to do much about it. The political consequences are unfathomable. My guess is that crime and turbulence will be a constant background noise but not revolution, since the minimum levels of testosterone needed for that kind of venture will be lacking.
Economically, a world dominated by the old will be less innovative, less dynamic, and more risk averse. The only way to compensate for a shriveled workforce will be through technology — but that’s just what you won’t get from the geezers in charge. Ingenious walkers and hospital beds may be devised, but productivity will at best stay flat. Given fewer workers and stagnant productivity rates, living standards will inevitably decline, and wealth will be distributed unevenly between age cohorts. This may suit the puritanical killjoys who advocate a less consumerist lifestyle, but even a gentle decline in consumption will throw a vast number of manufacturers, stores, and restaurants out of business. Recession, a temporary evil, will at some point become a permanent condition — and a traumatic economic convulsion will by no means be unthinkable.
But the most wrenching aspect of the transition will be social and psychological. Absent the binding power of children, the extended family will disappear, and the nuclear family will disintegrate. There will be few mothers and fathers, no siblings, no cousins, no aunts or uncles; whole lineages will flicker out. If family is the audience to the drama of life, each individual will perform in the chill of an empty theater. Isolation will leave the young, as a class, powerless and dependent. Loneliness will fill them with psychotic dread. There can be no exit, no escape to a better future. Repopulating the world will be a tough mathematical proposition. For generations, the old will smother the young the way one does with a precious possession, like a rare breed of dog.
Humanity Against Itself
These processes are already at work. The decline of the birth rate parallels the crisis of all institutions — from government to marriage — that once provided the handrails and signposts needed to successfully navigate social life. A society abandoned to its own devices has fractured into sectarian warbands, leaving the public increasingly divorced from ancestral culture.
The causes of institutional ruin, about which I have written at length, need not concern us here. What’s strange and unprecedented is the mood behind the wreckage. There are many legitimate reasons not to have children. And there are many who wish to have children and can’t. But as a form of cultural negation, in the aggregate, the spirit of the age that inspires childlessness feels antihuman in a very literal sense: fewer humans are being produced, suggesting a slump in the value of new human life. Those leading the parade, curiously, tend to share a humanist education and profess humanitarian values. They love humanity as an abstraction but despise it in the flesh. Members of this tribe stand, as it were, on a geometric point, above the world of mere objects, and from that privileged space look on their kind with unaccountable loathing and contempt.
The youngest generation to reach breeding age, the Zoomers, has been infected with this grudge against humanity. From every corner of a broken culture, with monotonous repetition, the Zoomers hear their species characterized as sadistically cruel, “senseless and suicidal,” locked in “a spiral of self-destruction.” If they somehow survive school-shooting massacres, viral pandemics, and Donald Trump, they’ll be annihilated, along with the planet, by climate change.
Not surprisingly, the Zoomers are a psychological mess. With regards to sexuality, they are stuck at the threshold of adulthood, too terrified to move forward. Compared to previous generations, they have less sex, fewer marriages, lower levels of testosterone, and, since “science proves kids are bad for Earth,” a greater unwillingness to reproduce. Potential mothers have no wish “to birth children into a dying world.” That’s the anti-human temper at its purest. According to the ethics of a future apocalypse, but amid actual tranquility and abundance, we must condemn the entire race, with all its unrealized dreams and adventures, to a death sentence.
In defiance of the studies, childlessness hasn’t made the Zoomers happier. In fact, they may be the most wretched generation ever raised under conditions of peace and plenty: Robbed of the usual youthful excitement in exploration, their lives are darkened by spiking rates of anxiety, clinical depression, eating disorders, feelings of guilt and shame, and suicide. The Zoomer indictment of humanity translates easily into self-loathing. Accordingly, they often engage in fantastic attempts to escape their own skins, for example, by denying the iron dictates of biological sex in favor of invented genders. Such revolts against reality may entail self-mutilation — digital or real — but leave little room for parenting and family life.
A Matter of Choice, Not Destiny
None of this is fated. Childlessness hasn’t been ordained by obscure impersonal forces. It’s a choice. I can say this with total confidence because a counterfactual exists: consider the case of Israel, a hypermodern country that teems with children. Israeli women “of all educational classes and levels of religiosity” embrace “strong natalist norms,” delivering (so to speak) a birth rate of 3-plus — highest by far among wealthy nations.
So what makes Israel special? Parents there receive generous benefits, but the same holds true for many countries in decline. Some suggest that Israelis multiply because they face an existential threat — but the Zoomers have reacted to feelings of threat by abdicating their sexuality. Israel is different, let me suggest, because at the micro scale, one individual and one couple at a time, Israelis have chosen to bring another generation into the world. We should be thankful they did so, if only to demonstrate it can be done. But the reasons behind the choice are private and subjective, and probably as varied as the number of Israelis who are capable of procreating.
Precisely because the choice is personal, it would be presumptuous of me to pass some cosmic analytical judgment on the question of childlessness. I can only fall back on my own experience. Indulge me, good reader, as I reflect on a life that may bear little resemblance to yours.
My wife and I came from three-sibling families. We thought that was the perfect number of children to have; in the fullness of time, overcoming trials and troubles, that’s exactly what we got. The birth of my kids clarified a great mystery. The human race is unique in that every individual craves to live for something bigger and more important than himself. Many fulfill this sense of mission in religion, others in careers or in service. I knew from the first I had been put in the world to protect those three helpless creatures. Was I happy? The question doesn’t even make sense in this context. Parents are hostages to their kids. They can make you miserable in a million ways. But you’re not paying much attention to yourself: you’re looking after them. And watching my children strive and struggle, succeed and fail, love and bicker, what I felt made the word “happiness” seem shallow and lame.
I am now a grandfather and that feeling has only intensified. The persons involved are largely responsible: I have been fortunate in the character of my kids. But I also know myself to be a link in a chain winding back to the beginning of all things. I walk arm in arm with a host of ancestors and descendants as fellow travelers in the extraordinary progression of organic life: of the human story. The feeling isn’t mystical in the least. It’s as solid and real as the family room of my home — and for all I know, it’s biochemically induced by selfish genes eager to replicate.
Who cares? I belong to the most boring and least exclusive club on earth, and every day it feels like an amazing privilege.