The future of childfree millennials
A Twitter backlash shows my generation’s short-sightedness
G. K. Chesterton once observed that modern people have a pernicious habit of “sacrificing the normal to the abnormal.” We fixate on exceptions as if they invalidate general truths. This tendency is nowhere more obvious than in the outrage you can generate on the internet by suggesting that children are important, that most people should have them, and that the consequence of mass barrenness will be a society starved for meaning.
I got a front-row seat on that outrage when I tweeted this: “Millennials who are very cavalier about not having children are in for a shock when they enter their 40s and realize life is only half over. What do you do at that point? Keep trying to be sexy and have fun? I expect to see a lot of sadness and confusion about what to do at that point.”
It was hardly a revolutionary observation. Priorities typically change in the second half of life, and expressive individualism doesn’t lead to the kinds of natural connections and belonging that emerge from marriage and fertility. In the thread, I suggested that proudly childless peers may have failed to grapple with what old age without family will look like, and what a life lived for the moment will mean when they’re out of moments.
You’d think I spiked a hornet’s nest. Over the next two days, more than 40,000 Twitter users, many of them sporting the coveted “blue check” of verified accounts, responded with indignation.
The types of responses were varied and predictable. I was heralded as an anti-sex scold by some. Others basked in their intentional childlessness. Others were more nihilist in their retorts, suggesting that climate concerns meant intentional childlessness was an act of charity to a dying planet. It was a major worldview revelation.
This backlash was nothing if not, well, cavalier. Yet it hardly changes the facts, or the predictions in my original tweet. All the way back in 2015, American millennials were on track to have fewer children than any generation in history. Our average fertility has only sunk since then. No economic, social, or political hardship—including two World Wars and a Great Depression—has produced birth rates this low. And it isn’t likely to change. A growing share (44 percent) of childless adults under 50 now say they’ll probably never have kids. This wasn’t one of those cases where Twitter misrepresents real life. Adults my age really are turning their backs on parenthood en masse.
The usual culprits blamed for patterns like this, including the economy, don’t really hold up. There is no clear causal link between the financial ups and downs since the Great Recession and millennial childlessness, and “no obvious policy or economic factor” that can fully explain such a sustained baby bust. Rather, the “primary driver for the decline in the birth rate since 2007” appears to be “shifting priorities.” Many people my age just don’t want kids, and surveys back this up. When asked why they haven’t had children, a majority of childless adults in my cohort said they simply don’t want them. Financial concerns came in at a distant third.
As Hillary Hoffower wrote at Business Insider, “millennial women, who are now in their prime childbearing years, have normalized the idea of choice,” and their choice reflects a calculation that having children “isn’t worth it.” Tens of thousands of those who replied to my tweet apparently came to the same conclusion. Yet I wonder if time will alter their answer.
The oldest millennials turned 40 last year. How will the rest of my generation feel once we, too, enter middle age? Contrary to those “ratioing” me on Twitter, there’s good evidence that regret will eventually set in, no matter how many donuts and anime shows they enjoy.
Just eight percent of parents say they regret having kids. Almost 30 percent say they wish they’d had more. In other words, hindsight tends to magnify the value of bringing little humans into the world, despite the sacrifice it requires. How you feel about having kids today is a poor predictor of how you’ll feel in the future. And if the booming fertility industry is any clue, many who brushed aside parenthood in their younger years are realizing this truth too late.
There also comes a point in life where the pursuit of fun and status tends to give way to bigger questions about purpose, meaning, and the legacy you’ll leave behind when you die. Unsurprisingly, things like money and creature comforts are “largely irrelevant” to this type of meaning. Perhaps equally unsurprisingly, parents find incredible meaning in their children.
As Paul Bloom wrote last year in The Atlantic, children occasion something deeper than mere happiness or pleasure. Citing social psychologist Roy Baumeister, he notes that just taking care of youngsters increases a person’s sense of meaning. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside likewise found that “hedonic pleasure,” which centers on the present and is therefore fleeting, looks very different from the satisfaction parents report, which tends to last, and is not diminished by the many challenges of caring for kiddos.
Again, not surprising. Children are a vote of confidence in the future. They are living symbols of hope, our next-year neighbors whom we are no less called to love and welcome than our next-door neighbors. Children teach us of life’s persistence over death, give us a chance to fling blessings beyond our years, and visibly remind us of our connection to and dependence on each other.
Not everyone will have children. Some are physically unable. Some are called to adopt. Some are called to be mothers and fathers in the faith. But there is a limit—socially, economically, politically, and spiritually—to how many members of a generation can choose to be exceptions, especially if they spend all that free time on themselves. Eventually, the exceptions become the rule. And there are consequences to that rule-change that will visit nations and nursing homes for half a century to come. It turns out pointing this out makes a lot of people my age angry, right now. Ask them again in 20 years.
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