Tuesday, July 23, 2024
HomeDemocracy in DecayWhy has parenthood gone out of fashion?

Why has parenthood gone out of fashion?


WE ARE living at a time when a large segment of the world – particularly societies in Europe, North America and Asia – no longer views having children as desirable or worthwhile. Whereas remaining childless used to be a source of shame, even if it was not through choice, we are now at a unique historic moment in which many people proudly broadcast the fact that they have no children as something to celebrate or be proud of.

Of course, there are many people in between, who want to have children but can’t, for biological reasons, or who want to have children, but feel too economically squeezed to make it work. But the overall pattern is clear: the more having children becomes undesirable or becomes viewed as ‘impractical’, the more we are seeing a population implosion.

Many countries are seeing their average birth rates dip well below population replacement level. This 2021 ‘Our World in Data’ map (based on World Population Prospects data published by the Population division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) indicates that outside Africa, there are relatively few countries that continue to have birth rates above replacement level – and in case you’re curious, none of those countries are in Europe or North America, nor do they include Russia, China, Japan, or India.

This turn of events raises some serious existential and pragmatic questions of the sort that our current political and media system may not be sufficiently mature to grapple with. First, why is having children viewed so negatively that many avoid it or put if off as long as possible? Second, why do people present not having children as if it has some special merit or is to be celebrated? Third, what does the decline in births mean for the future of Western societies and cultures?

Let’s begin with the negativity surrounding pregnancy and child-rearing. As the father of two small children, I can understand that pregnancy is difficult, to put it politely. I fully understand that rearing children and preparing them to face the world is extremely demanding, and emotionally stressful at times.

But there are many things we do in life that are demanding and involve overcoming fears and coping with anxiety, and stretching ourselves beyond our previous limits, from professional sports to highly competitive jobs, yet we see these demands as challenges, not turn-offs, because we perceive a reward in taking on such tasks, or view them as socially important.

Why not extend that logic to child-bearing and child-rearing? Why do we focus on the cost, stress, anxiety and other downsides of having children, while essentially discounting, or undercounting, the immense privilege and joy associated with the task of bringing new people into the world? Is it because we do not have good role models of happy and fulfilled parents? Is it because we are so caught up with being in control of our lives that the mere thought of having a tiny person completely depending on us terrifies us? Or is it because many of us are too attached to our material comforts and non-committed lifestyles to be open to the sacrifices that are demanded by parenting?

The decision seems logical for those ‘playing it safe’ or who feel squeezed economically, or just prefer a more comfortable life. What may seem a little puzzling is why people speak cheerfully and proudly about having a ‘child-free’ life, almost as if there were some merit to it. Take the following tweet, for example, by a politician in Ireland: ‘This 41 year old, unmarried, child-free woman had the best night of her life at Taylor Swift last night.’

I’m not saying we should return to the times when people had to feel a profound sense of guilt because they didn’t have children, whether by choice or on account of infertility. But there is surely something strange about suggesting that leading a ‘child-free’ existence is something we should be proud of, or something we should aspire to. People don’t typically go around saying, ‘I’m happily leading a Nobel-free life’ or ‘I’m happily job-free’ because while a person’s dignity and worth do not depend on having a Nobel prize or being employed, people don’t generally aspire to be ‘Nobel-free’ or ‘job-free’. Why, then, should anyone aspire to be ‘child-free’? Unless a sufficient number from a society have children who then have their own children, that society dwindles and self-destructs. The task of rearing children is one of the single greatest contributions someone can make to their society.

Finally, what does the decline in births mean for the future of Western societies and cultures? In the short and medium term, it necessarily creates labour shortages, which damage economic efficiency and prosperity. It also makes the traditional Western model of the welfare state unworkable, since the Western welfare state requires worker contributions to exceed the costs of welfare pay-outs, which become crippling in an ageing population with rocketing healthcare bills.

From a purely demographic point of view, you could replenish dying populations with young people from Africa, Afghanistan, Venezuela or Kazakhstan, since those societies have sustainable fertility rates. But the idea that every labour shortfall, including highly specialised labour, will be met by immigrants without a painful and costly transitional period, seems naive.

Even if you could eventually meet your labour shortages with skilled-up migrants, this does not take away from the fact that people immersed in certain cultures and ways of life, including Western cultures and ways of life, are essentially not reproducing their way of life at a sufficient pace to avoid cultural extinction.

If those of us fortunate enough to live in free and economically advanced societies value our own culture and way of life, if we think that the individual liberties we often take for granted, and the store of knowledge and customs we have built up over many generations, are worth passing on, then the fact that this particular culture is terminally ill and heading toward its own demise, should be a cause of concern.

If we think there is some other culture waiting in the wings to replace it, one that is just as good, if not better, we might not see our own cultural demise as a big deal. We might even see it as an opportunity. But it is not clear to me if there is a different culture standing by to help us renew our economic prosperity and preserve values such as personal freedom, rule of law, toleration and openness that have defined Western societies for generations.

This article appeared in The Freedom Blog on June 30, 2024, and is republished by kind permission

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David Thunder
David Thunder
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain.

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