My wife and I never spent much time talking about whether we wanted to have children. It was clear to both of us that we did, and our only concern was that we might not be able to. Yet if you had asked me why I wanted to have children, I would not have had anything very articulate to say. Nor did that fact bother me. Having children just seemed like the natural next step, and I felt no need to have or give reasons.
For increasing numbers of people in developed countries, things are not so simple. The decision whether to have children is regarded as an important lifestyle choice. Many people choose not to have children, and they bristle at the description of themselves as “childless.” The preferred description is “childfree,” which suggests the absence of a burden (compare “carefree”) rather than a form of privation (compare “homeless,” “jobless” or “friendless”). Marketers regard two-career couples without children—or DINKS (dual-income, no kids), in the slang expression—as an attractive target demographic.
Of course, not everyone is sympathetic to the choice not to have children. People who make that choice are sometimes accused of selfishness. The assumption behind this criticism is that an unwillingness to raise children reflects an unseemly form of self-involvement, whereas parenthood involves a willingness to put the needs of others first. Yet some advocates of childfree living return the charge of selfishness with interest. They speak contemptuously of (biological) parents as “breeders” and argue that it is these parents—or at least the affluent “helicopter” parents among them—who, by virtue of their intense involvement in their children’s lives and overinvestment in their futures, exhibit a form of selfishness. The choice to have children, in this view, reflects something closer to narcissism than to altruism.
For much of human history, these charges and counter-charges would have seemed strange, if not unintelligible. Having children was an economic necessity. It was the predictable result of satisfying powerful biological urges. And it was justified and valorized by the prevailing religious and secular conceptions of sex and gender.
Things have changed as a result of a number of factors. One is the ready availability of effective contraception, which has made sex without conception routine. Another is increased affluence, which has diminished the economic imperative to have children. Still another is the dramatic change, over the last century, in the social and political status of women, and their entry into the paid workforce in large numbers. These developments have combined to produce forceful challenges to traditional understandings of sex roles, family life and gender categories. And they have made it increasingly natural to think of decisions about whether to have children simply as matters of free individual choice, on par with the choice of occupation and other important decisions about how to live one’s life. For anyone who values freedom and equality, these changes are to be greatly welcomed.
Yet decisions about procreation can also be viewed from a broader perspective. Across the developed world, birth and fertility rates are falling. (A country’s birth rate is usually defined as the number of live births per thousand persons in the population during a given year. Its fertility rate is, roughly, the average number of children projected to be born to women in the country throughout their childbearing years.) Japan, with a fertility rate of 1.43, had its biggest recorded population decline in 2018. According to current projections, its population is expected to decline by 36 million people—almost 30 percent—by 2065. But fertility rates are just as low or lower in many other Asian and European countries, including Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Spain, Italy, Greece, Poland and Portugal. In other developed countries, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, fertility rates are a bit higher, but they remain below the level at which a population replaces itself from one generation to the next, which for developed countries is usually taken to be 2.1. According to World Bank statistics, as reported by the Economist, 57 of 63 high-income countries were below that level in 2016. If the total population is still growing in some of these countries, one important reason is that immigration has helped make up the difference.
There is an obvious irony in this. Hostility to immigration and to immigrants has been on the rise throughout Europe and North America. It has contributed to the recent waves of populist and nationalist sentiment that have transformed politics in those places and beyond. It has helped bring a new generation of authoritarian strongmen to power. Yet, as long as fertility rates in affluent countries remain below replacement level, those countries must depend on immigration to avoid depopulation. It is often observed that affluent societies like the United States rely on immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to do the difficult, dangerous, poorly paid jobs that nobody else is willing to do. In effect, we outsource these unwanted jobs to the very people against whom we direct our rage, resentment and hostility. What is not always sufficiently appreciated, however, is that one of the unwanted jobs we are outsourcing to immigrants is the job of creating new Americans and thus enabling American society to sustain itself over time.
At the individual level, our reasons for doing so may be unimpeachable. Individuals may have excellent reasons for deciding that they do not want to have any—or many—children. The fact remains, however, that if enough of us decide, even for the very best of reasons, that we do not want to have children, and if, at the same time, we want our society to be sustained and to flourish from generation to generation, then we must look to people elsewhere in the world to have the children we do not want to have. Those people must undertake the procreative labor required to sustain our way of life.
For white nationalists and white supremacists, the lesson to be learned from this is that American women, and in particular white American women, need to start having more children. Iowa congressman Steve King spoke for these people when he sent his notorious tweet saying that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” But for the vast numbers of people who find white nationalism and white supremacy utterly abhorrent, the lesson is different. If we want our country to survive and to flourish, and if we are dependent on immigration to sustain our population from generation to generation, then what we owe to immigrants who come here is not hostility but gratitude. Rather than being threatened by new immigrants, or thinking of them as supplicants looking for our largesse, we should recognize how much we depend on them to preserve the society we cherish.
I think this conclusion is basically correct. The underlying point, though, is that those of us living in affluent democratic societies appear to face a trilemma: either we must abandon the values of freedom and equality, or we must accept that our societies will gradually become depopulated, or we must welcome more immigration. White nationalists and white supremacists might be happy to accept the first option, but for most of us, that option is, to put it mildly, unacceptable. I have suggested that we should instead choose the third option. But there is a problem.
This becomes clear if we ask where the immigrants will come from. Insofar as they come from poorer countries, where the values of freedom and equality have not been realized, our reliance on the third option means it is in our interest that conditions in their home countries should not improve. After all, if the poorer countries achieved levels of education and affluence comparable to ours, and if they realized the values of freedom and equality to the same extent that we have, then people living in those countries would have less reason to emigrate. So if we rely on the third option as a solution to our trilemma, then we are, in effect, relying on the persistence of poverty and oppression in other countries to solve our problem. Our own societies can flourish and realize their basic values only if other societies do not flourish and do not realize those same values. If we accept this, it calls into question our commitment to the values we profess to hold dear. How deep can our commitment to those values be if we choose to solve our problems in a way that requires their violation?
So perhaps we should think more seriously about the second option. Perhaps, in other words, we should simply reconcile ourselves to the fact that our affluent, democratic societies will experience gradual depopulation as long as fertility rates fall below the replacement level. Why should that be regrettable? To be sure, a shrinking population can create a host of social and economic problems, as the Japanese have discovered. Still, it is not clear why it must be bad for a country’s population size to grow gradually smaller, especially if that is the consequence of the free choices made by its citizens.
Of course, if political and economic conditions improve sufficiently in the countries of the developing world, those countries too may begin to experience declining birth and fertility rates. We may reach the point where it is not just affluent societies that face the prospect of declining population size. Humanity as a whole may begin to shrink. In fact, in a recent analysis of United Nations data, the Pew Research Center predicted that the global fertility rate will fall to 1.9, which is below replacement level, by 2070. If those of us who live in affluent societies regard this as unacceptable, but nevertheless don’t wish to have more children ourselves, then we must hope for the persistence of high fertility rates elsewhere in the world to sustain the human population, even if those high rates are the outgrowth of poverty, low levels of education and the unequal status of women. And if we do hope for this, then the depth of our commitment to the values of freedom and equality is again called into question.
But is a declining human population really something to regret? The human population has experienced continuous growth since the fourteenth century, and it has more than doubled in just the last sixty years. We should not simply assume that additional growth would be a good thing. Population growth has already caused serious environmental problems, and these are likely to become more severe with additional growth. Moreover, there are limits to the population that the earth can support, even though there is disagreement about where exactly those limits lie. However that disagreement may be resolved, it seems clear that global overpopulation is far more likely be a genuine practical problem than is global underpopulation, at least for the time being.
So perhaps the solution to our trilemma is to combine the second and third options. As long as immigration enables us to sustain our societies, we have at least one strong reason—there are others too—to welcome those who wish to immigrate. At the same time, we have reason to hope that global poverty will be alleviated, and that people everywhere will enjoy the benefits of human rights, universal education and the rule of law. And we have reason to hope that these things will happen, despite the fact that, if they do, the flow of would-be migrants may then be reduced and our societies, and perhaps the world as a whole, may face the prospect of gradual depopulation as fertility rates everywhere decline.
Even if we accept this solution, as I think we should, it casts decisions about whether to have children in a slightly different light. Although procreative decisions are properly viewed as matters of individual choice, they nevertheless belong to wider social patterns that raise a range of questions about the future of our society and our world: questions ranging from immigration policy to the scope and depth of our commitment to liberal values. At the most basic level, they raise questions about the kind of future we want our countries and humanity as a whole to have.
This point comes into sharper focus if we think about a more radical possibility. So far, we have been considering the prospect of gradual national and global depopulation as a result of declining fertility rates. At least as a thought experiment, though, we can consider a more drastic possibility. Instead of imagining merely that global birth rates were to fall below replacement level, let’s instead ask ourselves what it would be like if everyone freely decided to live a childfree life. Let’s suppose, in other words, that prospective parents everywhere made the individual decision to stop having children, so that we faced the prospect not merely of gradual depopulation but rather of imminent extinction, as an aging human population faded away without having reproduced itself. As a practical possibility, of course, this idea is outlandish. It’s not going to happen. But suppose it did. What would it be like to live in a world without children?
In her novel The Children of Men, P. D. James offers an imaginative answer to that question. In James’s novel, the absence of children and the imminent extinction of humanity result not from the free choices of individuals but from a mysterious form of infertility that has afflicted the entire human race. When the novel opens, no new human beings have been born in over 25 years, and the end of the human race is imminent as people inexorably die out. In this scenario, and by contrast to most apocalyptic literature and film, the disappearance of humanity will be accomplished without any existing person dying violently or prematurely. People are simply fading away: day by day, month by month, year by year. How would you feel if you found yourself in those circumstances?
I believe, as P. D. James evidently did, that many people would view humanity’s imminent disappearance as a catastrophe, and that they would be liable to experience symptoms of gloom, grief and even despair, despite the fact that neither their own lives nor the lives of any existing individual they cared about would end prematurely. The perceived catastrophe would be that no new people were going to be born. And to the extent that we would indeed perceive this fact—the fact that no new people were going to be born—as a catastrophe, this teaches us something important and perhaps surprising about ourselves. It indicates that many of us have a direct and intense concern for the survival of humanity, which is independent of, and coexists with, our concern for the identifiable individuals we know and love. It is also independent of, and coexists with, our concern for the particular communities to which we belong and the particular ways of life with which we identify. To be sure, the death of a loved one or the disappearance of a community or way of life can also be experienced as devastating. But what James’s thought experiment seems to reveal is something that is less often noticed, namely, that in addition to our attachments to particular individuals and communities, many of us have a concern for the survival of humanity as such. I do not think it is going too far to describe this concern as a form of love: the love of humanity.
There is no reason to think that this concern is limited to people who have or wish to have children. To the contrary, people who prefer to remain childfree as individuals might nevertheless experience the imminent disappearance of humanity as a whole as catastrophic. Their personal procreative decisions need not reflect any lack of concern for the future of humanity.
Those of us who have such a concern could not face the prospect of a childfree world with equanimity. Even if we do not ourselves want to have children, we nevertheless want humanity to have a future. So there is a limit to the degree of depopulation we could happily accept. We want children to be produced—by someone. And so, if we are also to retain our commitment to freedom and equality, we must hope that there will always be enough people who freely choose to have children. And we must hope that they will make this choice, whether or not they can articulate the reasons for it, even when doing so is neither an economic necessity nor the result of the subordination of women. We must hope, in other words, that they will make this choice even when they also enjoy the benefits of social equality, material well-being, universal education and the rule of law. Only if that happens will our commitments to freedom, equality and fairness be fully reconciled with our love of humanity.
Art credit: Francisco Diaz & Deb Young