What would happen if everyone stopped having children? The Children of Men — P.D. James’s 1992 dystopian novel about a world where women have become infertile — depicts one hopeless and chaotic outcome. The question her story raises is increasingly relevant across the Western world and in the United States, as my generation chooses, in historic numbers, not to have children. Many are cavalier about this decision, proud of their “childfree” lifestyle, even as they approach middle age. But intentionally childless millennials are in for a shock when they enter their 40s and realize life is only half over. Far from a hindrance or liability, children are one of life’s greatest wellsprings of meaning. And a society (or church) with too few of them is dystopian indeed.
Millennials who are very cavalier about not having children are in for a shock when they enter their 40s & realize life is only half over. What do you do at that point? Keep trying to be sexy & have fun? I expect to see a lot of sadness & confusion about what to do at that point.
— Shane Morris (@GShaneMorris) August 23, 2022
I got into trouble on Twitter for pointing this out. After my tweet went viral, tens of thousands of angry commenters, most of them fellow millennials, assured me that having fun and being sexy are perfectly viable priorities for the second half of life. Besides, the planet is overpopulated, the economy is terrible, and climate change means children will face an uncertain future. Why bring more people into such a miserable world just so I can have company in my old age?
It’s a fascinating question, in part because if prior generations had answered it the way ours has, many of my critics would not exist. I’ve written about overpopulation mythology and its long record of failed predictions here and here (the world is definitely not running out of food or space). And there are good reasons to doubt that the economy is the main barrier preventing millennials from starting families. These trendy rationalizations seem to conceal a more subtle force that’s keeping my generation from marriage and parenthood. Scroll through the endless, angry replies I received (for instance, from comedienne Chelsea Handler), and you can detect it — a bone-deep nihilism, an attitude that life is not worth passing on, that enjoying the present is all that really matters, and that we have no duty to those who came before or will succeed us. Millions have bought into this attitude and can’t imagine how their decision to live only for the present will have societal and personal consequences.
Decline and Fall of Fertility
Observers were already noting in 2015 that millennials were having fewer children on average than any generation in U.S. history, and it hasn’t improved in the seven years since. Nothing in our national past — not World Wars, not the Great Depression, and not pandemics more deadly than COVID-19 — has resulted in birth rates this low, for this long. When polled, a growing share of childless adults say they’re probably never going to have kids. And alarmingly, this trend toward rock-bottom birth rates holds across nearly every Christian denomination. (Pentecostal and non-denominational churches are the only groups likely to grow.)
Many adults of childbearing age are telling themselves they’ll get around to it, eventually, after they’ve sorted out their education, built a career, and (one day, maybe) found a spouse. But the clock is ticking. The oldest millennials turned 40 last year. The youngest are approaching 30. For women, fertility begins to decline in the late 20s and drops off sharply after about 35. In other words, most millennials are now exiting their prime childbearing years. By the time some decide to have children, they might not be able to. The result will be a shrinking and aging population, something we’re already seeing in other countries.
Take Japan, for instance. One in four Japanese citizens is over 65, and the nation is shrinking by over a million people a year. They’re not leaving; they’re dying. Many Japanese seniors die alone and are only found because of the odor. So many suffer this fate that there’s a word for it—kodokushi, or “lonely deaths” — and an accompanying new industry for disinfecting kodokushi apartments.
Japan’s decrepitude has contributed to the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world. And the support system for its aging population is upside-down, with “an increasingly smaller share of the citizenry [being] asked to shoulder the financing costs for rising social security transfers.” There are too few young people to support all the old people, and the young have gotten the message: they’re lonely and isolated, losing hope for the future, and committing suicide in historic numbers.
A shrinking and aging society is not a healthy society. You can see the symptoms through the wide-angle lens of demography, and they’re tough to reverse. A lack of children tends to trigger a “vicious cycle in which low fertility in one generation causes lower fertility in the next, leading to a downward spiral in population.” We often imagine that because we have billions of people on this planet, a Children of Men–like scenario is impossible. But Japan is just one of dozens of countries around the world due for “jaw-dropping” population crashes in the near future, not because of a mysterious disease (as in P.D. James’s story) but because of millions of individual choices not to invest in the future.
The Meaning of Children
When we change the wide-angle lens to a macro lens, it’s not hard to see the difference descendants make. Children are living testaments that the future is a place worth inhabiting. They give adults a reason to care about what happens after we’re gone, and they stubbornly raise our eyes to values higher than self-gratification. They motivate us to build institutions and traditions instead of pleasure palaces, to think in centuries instead of decades, to invest instead of spend. They teach us patience, compassion, and other-centered love. And they explode our illusions of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Children remind us that we, ourselves, were once dependent — the products of risks and sacrifices by those who preceded us, and who chose meaning over gratification.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that parents almost never say they regret having children. A YouGov poll found that just eight percent experience birther’s remorse. By contrast, nearly 30 percent of parents say they wish they’d had more children. And the booming fertility industry testifies that those who wait until it’s too late often regret their choice.
The priorities many of my critics on Twitter touted — hobbies, hedonism, and having lots of disposable income — turn out to be “largely irrelevant” to people’s sense that their lives have meaning. And meaning is the thing you really want to pursue. As Paul Bloom wrote last year in The Atlantic, meaning is a different animal from mere happiness, or what researchers have called “hedonic pleasure.” Meaning is associated with a focus on the relationship between the past and future, rather than just the present. It is long-lasting, not fleeting. It derives from giving, not taking. And it involves stress and challenges, not just ease and convenience. For those of us raising kids, this is a familiar job description.
The natural connections and belonging that have given humans meaning throughout history aren’t an accident. They emerge from marriage and fertility. Developed nations are plunging into an “epidemic of loneliness” in part because they have given up on the “obligations of kinship” that tie people permanently to one another. As Kay Hymowitz writes at City Journal, “lower fertility translates into fewer siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins,” and the loss of all these durable connections leaves people lost, especially in their latter years, which is why we’re starting to see more lonely deaths in America.
Not everyone will get married and have kids, and not everyone should. Christians have a very ancient category for those who are called to lifelong celibacy for the purpose of serving God’s kingdom, and there are some who will find their calling in spiritual, rather than biological, parenting. Still others are physically unable to bear children and choose to adopt. I owe my existence to that beautiful choice, and my extended family is still growing because of it.
But the vast majority of those devoted to childfree lives do not fall into these categories. They’re simply living for themselves, maximizing “hedonic pleasure” and “leisure time,” with little thought of the future. And it’s not just happening among our secular peers. Statistics show it’s happening among Christian millennials too.
Idolatry of Childlessness
It has long been popular in evangelical blogging and publishing to warn against the “idolatry of marriage and family.” There may be subcultures where these things are emphasized at the expense of other biblical vocations. But the vast majority of American churches today are experiencing baby busts, not booms. Overwhelmingly, the problem is not an immoderate emphasis on marriage and children, but an indifference or hostility toward them. If we’re honest, those who choose childlessness (or have very few children) are rarely doing so for the sake of the kingdom.
As one pastor friend of mine observed, “young, healthy, married” Christian couples are often upset when older church members or relatives expect them to have multiple children. If you “pastorally poke this bear,” he added, you often find a “worship of mammon” or even a “hopelessness that deeply questions the value and meaning of human existence.”
Christians are called to be a people of hope, and that hope resides ultimately in the Son of God, not in the children of men. But the church is not immune to demographic realities or the lonely future that awaits a people who fail to reproduce themselves. Neither is the church exempt from God’s creation mandate in Genesis 1:28, which includes the command to “be fruitful and multiply.”
My generation is nearing a point of no return, and our priorities in the next few years will determine much about the long-term meaning of our lives and the direction of our society. Our choices will either fill households and churches or leave them empty. It’s true that believers are born-again, not born. Christian fertility is no guarantee that the church in America will survive or thrive. But not even the gospel can save people who don’t exist.
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