“I laughed, and then I asked Jen when she’d be giving me grandkids,” said my friend Ann. “She told me she and her boyfriend had made up their minds never to have babies. I don’t know why that bothers me, but it does.”
I could see how Ann could be conflicted about this. Ann’s a good liberal, and a nice person generally.
So I just sympathized with her. I didn’t mention that her daughter is simply living out everything Ann has been teaching her all her life. That mankind (she’d say humankind) is a blight on the earth. That salvation lies in reducing our numbers, in greening over our footprint.
Voluntary extinction is just the next logical step.
The conversation left me troubled. It got me thinking about demographic decline, a problem to which I’ve contributed personally (against my wishes, I assure you) through never marrying or fathering a child.
Populations are plunging all around the world. Other, more knowledgeable writers than I have covered that subject already. So I took a lateral jump, and started pondering a subsidiary problem I don’t hear about so much — the decline of “expendable” younger sons.
When I say “expendable,” I don’t mean in any way to disparage younger sons. I recognize their virtues, which are rather different from the virtues of older sons like me.
The world is full of tales about younger sons. It seems to me, in fact, that they’re overrepresented in song and story. I’ve noted in my Bible reading that every time there’s a birthright dispute, God takes the side of the younger son. (I’m frankly a little bitter on the point.)
In folk tales, at least in the West, the classic “Clever Jack” story involves three brothers, sent out to make their fortunes in the world. The older sons are arrogant and a little dull (okay, I’ll admit there’s some justice in that stereotype). The youngest boy, Jack, is bold and curious. He thinks outside the box, as the cliché goes. He picks up odds and ends that turn out to be useful. And in the end, he’s the one who breaks the spell and wins the princess for his wife.
I didn’t grow up in a large family by the standards of the times, but I had two brothers. And the patterns of the stories ring true with me. The older brother does tend to be something of a stick. Conservative (in the emotional sense). Rule-bound. Not the kind of person who’s likely to, oh, jump on a tramp steamer on a whim. (A girl actually invited me to join her on a tramp steamer voyage to Japan once, in my college years. In retrospect, I wish I’d gone. If I’d been a younger son, I might have.)
If somebody were to examine the records, I’ll bet most of the guys who settled the American West were younger brothers. Also most of the Darwin Award winners.
That’s the glory of the “expendable” younger brothers. They know they can go out and take risks. Do new and dubious things. Mom will be sad if they never come home, but she won’t be left desolate. There are other brothers. Often several, in the old days.
Nowadays, we’ve got no spares. If a family loses a child, that’s it. End of the line, in two senses.
My late uncle Orvis, my dad’s younger brother, once told me his life’s story. “I ran the farm for a year while your dad was in the army,” he said. “And I don’t think he’d hardly stepped through the door when he got back before I was on a bus to enlist in the Air Force.” Later Orvis would attend technical school and go into electronics. He ended up an executive with a corporation whose name you’d recognize.
All his life Orvis attributed his success to how much he’d hated the farm. Whatever the annoyances of life in electronics, they beat getting up at 5:00 a.m. and working past sundown, in summer heat or winter cold, under my grandfather’s remorseless eye. And the money was a whole lot better. Millions of young men like my uncle Orvis flooded into the cities up through the mid-20th century, providing an energy resource that fueled a colossal economy.
They won our wars, too. And their sheer numbers made the cost slightly easier to bear than it might have been. Not easy. Each young life lost was infinitely precious, loved by God. But there were always plenty of replacements, just as precious. It’s the old question of how you define value: by wonder or by scarcity. The answer to that debate is beyond the scope of this essay.
But however you define value, we used to have infinite value to spend, value that was generally champing at the bit to be spent. And we don’t have that anymore. In our present world of one-child families, all the eggs are in a single basket. Nearly every son lost in a war, or in adventure or mere high spirits, ends a family line forever.
Can we go on this way? Is it possible to be a great power at all without younger sons?
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