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April 30 2015

Have we reached a tipping point with childlessness?

Washington Times
Charlotte Allen

The discussion about whether or not to have children has gained traction recently.

Teddy Wayne addressed the subject in the New York Times, and Katie Roiphe wrote about it in The Washington Post. Blogs as diverse as Charlotte Allen’s at the Independent Women’s Forum and Sabine Heinlein’s at “Longreads” weighed in on childlessness. An article in Marie Claire looked at celebrities who’ve been vocal about not having children (most notably Cameron Diaz, Oprah Winfrey, Jay Leno and Helen Mirren). Meghan Daum just published a new anthology of personal essays by 16 writers who decided not to reproduce, and Kate Bolick’s book, “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” describing her choice to not marry and have children, will come out later this month.

They point out that the economic burden of a child today is twice that of one born in 1985.

This rash of commentary and controversy over whether to have children intensified back in 2012 with the release of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report showing that the percentage of childless women in the U.S. ages 40-44 doubled over the past 4 decades, 1976-2006. The reality of the 21st century is that 19 percent of American women never have a child –– nearly one in five.

A 2014 Pew Research report ranks the U.S. among the highest in the world in childlessness and the CDC reports that 22 percent of childless women are “childless by choice.” which warranted the focus of their report.

What is overshadowed by the current fad of childlessness among yuppies in gentrified city neighborhoods is that 35 percent of the childless women (fully 13 percent more than the 22 percent childless by choice) did not choose to be childless, according to the CDC’s analysis. For most of them, the reality of not having a child has “bred new emotional states.” Katie Bolick described nature’s imperative in her New York Times’ article about Meghan Daum’s book, “… [A] morass of resentment, insecurity, longing and disappointment for those who don’t find the right man in time to mate (the terms ‘childless by circumstance’ and ‘social infertility’ have been coined to describe this group); an ungovernable tangle of anxiety, confusion and exhaustion for those who combat fertility issues with costly and invasive assisted reproductive technologies; and a pervasive fog of self-recrimination and angst for those who simply don’t know what they want.”

The dramatic increase in childlessness is related to the equally dramatic decline in marriage (and increase in cohabitation and sexual “hook ups”), as well as to the lagging income growth and economic recessions of this century (with some couples claiming that they cannot “afford” to get married and/or have children).

A factor which has only recently been highlighted is the strong connection between marriage, childlessness and education. The Pew Research Center reports that while childlessness is up among the majority of women, it is down among women with advanced degrees.

A recent Pew poll revealed that a plurality of Americans (46 percent) see no problems for society in regard to increasing childlessness. Harry Siegel, (writer, TV commentator, author) in a Newsweek article begs to differ: “It’s time for us to consider what an aging, increasingly child-free population, growing more slowly, would mean here. As younger Americans individually eschew families of their own, they are contributing to the ever-growing imbalance between older retirees –– basically their parents –– and working-age Americans, potentially propelling both into a spiral of soaring entitlement costs and diminished economic vigor and creating a culture marked by hyperindividualism and dependence on the state as the family unit erodes.”

In the United States there is blithe chatter about marriage becoming “obsolete,” while worldwide, the “demographic winter” and “postfamilialism” are producing economic stagnation. Mr. Siegel notes that politically, single women have lately been a “powerful force” and a reliable “left-leaning political constituency” for the Democratic Party. He quotes political analysts who describe single women as the “core constituency” of the Democratic Party, as the “largest progressive voting bloc in the country” and the “emerging Democratic majority.” Mr. Siegel also notes, “The strong correlation between childlessness and high-density city living has created essentially two Americas: child-oriented and affordable areas, and urban centers that have become increasingly expensive and child-free over the last 30 years – not coincidentally the same span over which middle-class incomes have stagnated.”

It is significant to note that economists use the term “marriage premium” to refer to the financial benefits that accrue to married couples. Barbara Kiviat (Harvard University doctoral fellow and associate with the U.S. Financial Diaries, a project that studies the economic lives of American families) reported in Time, “Married baby boomers increase their wealth an average of 16 percent a year while those who are single increase their net worth at half that rate.” Men, especially, benefit from marriage in numerous ways: They are healthier and live long, have more stable employment, better earnings and are wealthier, have better sex, better relationships and better emotional health.

In the year 2000, I authored a monograph titled, “Gaining Ground,” that presented research trends in eight different areas of women’s well-being showing the phenomenal progress that women had made over the previous 100 years in each of the areas, noting that the single exception to forward momentum was in the area of personal happiness. Numerous surveys have documented both women’s substantial progress in all areas of potential as well as that the “measures of women’s subjective well-being have fallen both absolutely and relatively to that of men.”

The impact of childlessness extends beyond the personal. There are global repercussions for nations’ economies, in terms of unemployment, education, health care and careers. The demographic trend necessitates expansions in entitlement programs for the increased population of elderly and for the larger numbers of those without family support during illness or other hardship. There is less support available for education, health care, social programs or for those young families caring for elderly parents.

Communities, too, feel the change. With more singles and elderly and fewer children, businesses and services change, retailers supplying everyday children’s needs go out of business and housing needs are different. Bill Bollom, a Wisconsin columnist, aptly characterizes matters, there is a “loss of economic dynamism – productivity, growth and innovation suffer.” The USA Today report on the CDC data quotes Michael Silverman, (partner and director of Integra Realty Resources, a national appraisal firm in Philadelphia), who boils the reality down to the terse assessment that “the way to keep a community going is to keep it young.”

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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