Fewer Adults are Having Children


A young woman I’ve known since the day she was born has just had a baby. In the past few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with a couple of toddlers—those spirited pint-sized humans discovering the world around them. My nephew and his wife are expecting their first child in the spring. Babyworld brings me a lot of joy.

Babies, babies, everywhere—except not really.

An article in The Washington Post about Millennials not having kids led with this first sentence: “The U.S. birthrate languishes at its lowest level in history.” According to Pew Research, 44 percent of non-parents in 2021 said they are not too likely or not at all likely to have children, up from 37 percent in 2018.

Pew Research also reported the number one reason for adults to stay childless: they just don’t want to have children. That’s a lazy reason. Not that childless adults are too lazy to put in the time and energy commitment to having children, but the reason itself is lazy.

It’s like a parent saying to their child: “Because I said so.” So if you’re not going to be a parent, saying I “just don’t want to have children” might be the proxy for “because I said so.”

Among adults who say there is a reason other than “just don’t want to have children,” the top two answers are “medical reasons” and “financial reasons.” I’m not sure what the medical reasons might be (state of healthcare in the U.S.?), but I can fully understand the financial reasons. Having kids costs a lot. It puts parents into positions of fiscal responsibility which may make them feel trapped in jobs they don’t like, working too many hours or too many jobs, and being unable to afford the lifestyle they desire. Those seem like good reasons not to have kids.

I wish Pew had added one more category to the answer choices: “Because I’d be a shitty parent.” I’m pleased that fewer adults want children, but I hope the ones choosing not to are the ones who aren’t cut out for it: the ones who would be neglectful, abusive, or selfish. I doubt that’s the case though.

To my surprise, the “state of the world” and “climate change/the environment” are not frequently cited as reasons not to have children. I’m concerned about the state of the world and the environment my children will have to contend with, and I considered those factors when thinking about having children.

In my early twenties I thought I wouldn’t become a parent. Part of it was I hadn’t figured out much about my own life and couldn’t conceive of trying to do it while changing diapers, pushing strollers, and being responsible for other lives. But I was also studying economics at the time. I came across the theory by Robert Malthus that human population grows more rapidly than the food supply until famines, war, or disease reduces the population.

That was back in 1980 when the world population was 4.4 billion. Now it’s almost doubled to 8 billion. I guess famines, war, and disease haven’t kicked in enough, although it seems like there is no shortage of famines, war, and disease in the world.

A lot of people freak out about the population growth rate declining. They fear there will be fewer young people to support an aging population, but that should only be an issue for a single generation until the boomer generation is gone. Then there is the economic growth and prosperity argument: we need workers to fuel the economy and raise the standard of living. It looks to me like the standard of living in the U.S. is rising mostly for the few, not the many. So maybe if we only had the few, we’d all be better off. Certainly the environment could be better off if fewer people were tugging on its resources.

Anyway, I’ve got my two kids, Malthusian Theory be damned. I’m thrilled about how much Julia and Owen have enhanced my life, and also concerned about the world I’m leaving them. If it weren’t for my children I wouldn’t care so much about population trends or environmental degradation or financial stability. So I don’t mind the lower population growth rates. I’ve always been okay with fewer people around me, not more.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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