Pat Buchanan wrote The Death of the West in 2001. Chapter Two was titled “Where Have All the Children Gone?”
Five years later, Mark Steyn wrote “America Alone,” which also examined falling birthrates in the West. This year, Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times about America’s falling birthrates.
Buchanan worried about the erosion of Western, Christian culture. Steyn worried mostly about our public pension systems, which depend on every generation being bigger than the one before. Douthat worried about the moral character, the “decadence” that is a cause and a result of widespread childlessness. All of arguments have points I agree with and ones I disagree with. It’s an important topic that much of our media avoids delving deeply into.
That’s why Jonathan Last’s latest article on the decline of marriage and parenthood is very important. I want to excerpt some of his key points.
How did we get to an America where half of the adult population isn’t married and somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of the population don’t get married for the first time until they’re approaching retirement? It’s a complicated story involving, among other factors, the rise of almost-universal higher education, the delay of marriage, urbanization, the invention of no-fault divorce, the legitimization of cohabitation, the increasing cost of raising children, and the creation of a government entitlement system to do for the elderly childless what grown children did for their parents through the millennia….
The second shift is the dismantling of the iron triangle of sex, marriage, and childbearing. Beginning in roughly 1970, the mastery of contraception decoupled sex from babymaking. And with that link broken, the connections between sex and marriage—and finally between marriage and childrearing—were severed, too….
In 2007, there was a 21 percent increase in people who said it was important for a marriage that the couple have “good housing.” Thirty-seven percent fewer people said that having children was important. The other indicator to decline in importance from 1990 to 2007? “Faithfulness.”…
Kotkin sees larger cultural problems down the road. “[A] society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future,” he writes. “We could tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared towards consuming or recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.”
I’ll add one thought of my own:
Think about the world a generation from now. A sizable portion of the population comes from medium or large-sized families. The adults have kids, nieces, nephews, young cousins. Another portion of the population is childless. Disproportionately, they are only children. No nephews, no nieces. Maybe no younger cousins.
There will be a big difference in priorities. There will also be different standards. Much of our ideas of public decency have to do with what we do or don’t want children seeing. If you don’t think, or care, much about children, you’ll have different standards.
It’ll be a cause of tension in the future. I don’t know what problems will arise along that tension line, but they could be big ones.