The Nation's Pulse

America the Childless

Time is not really on our side.

By 9.9.13

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Sometimes, I wonder why I bother to read Time magazine. Then a rare gem surfaces that makes the drudgery of leafing through each issue worth it. Or at least, almost worth it.

Time’s August 12 cover story is a case in point. Lauren Sandler takes the reader on a fascinating journey into the world of couples who purposely choose a childfree life. The tagline, “When having it all means not having children,” neatly summarizes the overall premise.

“The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history,” Sandler writes, “which includes the fertility crash of the Great Depression.… A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s.”

Conservatives hate China’s one-child policy, yet increasingly America has a one-child (or even no child) policy of its own — an informal one.

Why should we find that surprising? Our country’s fiscal policy puts the wants of the present ahead of the needs of the future. Our culture of decadence does the same on the personal and relational level. That we’re choosing to skip the most self-sacrificing part of life — the rearing of children — shouldn’t be a shocker.

Beyond the cultural shift, the brute facts of modern life mean that disincentives for children abound: everything from Social Security and Medicare (which substitutes the government, rather than adult children, as caretaker in old age) to the mushrooming costs of higher education, day care, and real estate.

In 2013, it’s darn expensive to raise a child. But it’s also darn expensive to lease a BMW, buy a $5 latte each morning, and bar hop each night. The issue boils down to choices.

The women and men interviewed by Sandler reinforced that point. They repeat the same refrain: having children would mess up my lifestyle.

“If [motherhood] is the hardest job in the world, I’m damn happy I don’t have to do it,” said one non-mom.

Others grasp for a more virtuous reason, yet embarrassingly miss the mark.

Paul and Leah Clouse, for example, claim in the Time article that they simply lack wiggle room in their schedule to fit in a little bundle of joy. Between their day jobs, hobbies, and church involvement, they can’t manage it.

“I don’t feel we can do what we do and be great parents — and for me, the emphasis would be on being great parents,” Leah said.

In other words, we’d be such awesome child-begetters that all our other God-ordained tasks would suffer. Those divinely appointed tasks boil down to blogging, creative projects, and starting up a bakery.

Somehow, I’m sure the world will move on if the Clouses can’t chase these pursuits. But the world will stop moving if our anti-child attitudes continue.

That’s a key point made by Weekly Standard senior editor Jonathan Last in his recent book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy and read it cover to cover.

America’s birth rate hovers around 1.93 births per woman, shy of the 2.1 births needed to achieve replacement (that is, keeping our population at a stable level, not factoring in immigration).

In European nations, the statistics are far worse. Three examples: Ukraine (1.29), Greece (1.39), and
Italy (1.40). Last warns
that America’s future
looks more like Europe
with each passing day.

Why should we care? For one, a graying population has significant fiscal implications. That scenario is playing out in Japan, where the old vastly outnumber the young, putting an incredible strain on entitlement programs. Consider that in 2011, for the first time, the Japanese bought more adult diapers than infant diapers.

Another problem: A nation’s population will begin to shrink as the old die off. Nowhere in history is there an example of a nation prospering with a declining population. In future terms, babies are the engine of our economy.

So, what to do about it? In What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Last struggles to come up with a meaningful solution to the dearth and births, and with good reason. We’re concerned here with seismic cultural forces difficult to track, let alone control.

But he points to several factors that could help to curb our sub-replacement fertility rate, including restructuring Social Security and fostering a hearty return to religious life in America.

How practical these suggestions are is up for debate, and Last acknowledges that. The United States could be set on a course for demographic self-destruction. But we can’t say that we haven’t been warned.

Time would’ve done its readers a better service by ensuring that the big questions about childlessness —primarily, what does this mean for the future of the Western world — were addressed. One must go to Jonathan Last for that.

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About the Author
David N. Bass is a journalist who writes from the Old North State. Follow him on Twitter.