In the last couple weeks, three items have popped out that I’d definitely include in a second edition of What to Expect. Some preliminary thoughts:
(1) The great Joel Kotkin has a fantastic piece in Newsweek on being childfree. It’s probably a little more stern than I would put it, but in nearly every particular Kotkin is dialed in. For instance:
A plurality of Americans—46 percent—told Pew in 2009 that the rising number of women without children “makes no difference one way or the other” for our society.
These changes are not theoretical or inconsequential. Europe and East Asia, trailblazers in population decline, have spent decades trying to push up their birthrates and revitalize aging populations while confronting the political, economic, and social consequences of them.
Also, he’s funnier than I am: “Crudely put, the lack of productive screwing could further be screwing the screwed generation.” That’s awesome.
Kotkin’s piece is largely drawn from his big recent study on post-familialism, but it includes bits of color from interviews with New York hipsters that are really worth the price of admission:
“I kind of like to have my own time,” Elizabeth Deegan, a 33-year-old living in Jersey City, told Newsweek in a phone interview. Even as a child, she says with a laugh, baby dolls “were not appealing. I always wanted the Barbies with the boyfriend and the job, not these helpless things.”
Deegan—who clerked years ago with Jordan at the Enchanted Forest, a toy store in Manhattan, and now works as a part-time delivery person for FedEx, a pet-sitter, and the founder of a community-based arts program called Project Greenville—said that for herself and other women, having a child had become an affirmative decision rather than a passive or accidental one. She was the only woman Newsweek spoke with who said she had ever been pregnant. She was 18—she can’t remember if it was just before or after graduating high school—and had an abortion.
Deegan and Jordan both stressed that they always tell prospective beaus very early on that they don’t intend to have children and cut off any budding relationships with men who feel otherwise. “You can’t be that interested in the beginning,” says Jordan, explaining why she won’t date the natally inclined. “Like what, you’re really hot or you’re really cool? There’s tons of those people out there—this is New York City.” (The man with them, on the other hand, asked after the interview that his name not be used, after realizing that his desire not to have children might not be appreciated by his partner of five years; they’d never directly discussed the topic.)
At the hookah bar, Jordan and Emily Wernet, a 25-year-old freelance illustrator of comics and tattoos, joked about the grotesqueness of a hand appearing inside a belly and about “parasites,” “popping one out,” and “horrible little grubs” in the midst of more serious conversation about their fears of relinquishing sole ownership of one’s own body.
While they bemoaned the expense and the physical and emotional effects of their birth-control regimens, they agreed it was a price worth paying to control their own fertility. “There’s a feeling like we’re basically like wombs on legs,” said another of Jordan’s former toy-store colleagues, Janet Rivera, a soft-spoken 30-year-old office manager from Brooklyn. “I feel like as a teen part of my reaction to having kids was definitely … just wanting to be seen as more than a baby factory. And then as I got older, I feel like the responsibility of having a child is a really huge deal and the expense is out of control.”
Along with kids, the group also recoiled at the domestic, often suburban lifestyle that comes with them.“Certain groups of friends have all gotten married and gone ahead and had kids and moved to Long Island because that seems to be the benchmark of success in Queens—the schools, and the pool and things that I like for weekends,” says Deegan. “It’s very orderly, like if you put them in different clothes, it could be the 1950s.”
And then Kotkin gets into the bigger questions of urban density and fertility. What he’s getting at here really deserves its own book: That a great deal of the urban-paradise boosterism of the mass transit/increased density/Richard Florida school is, either intentionally or not, vaguely anti-family.
Don’t miss this piece.
(2) UC Riverside professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has a book out called The Myths of Happiness which suggests that the body of research showing that kids make parents less happy is wrong. She’s got a pretty steep hill to climb, but I just ordered my copy and I’m looking forward to reading it.
We propose that the recent rise in the fertility rate in developed countries is the beginning of a broad-based increase in fertility towards above-replacement levels. Environmental shocks that reduced fertility over the past 200 years changed the composition of fertility-related traits in the population and temporarily raised fertility heritability. As those with higher fertility are selected for, the “high-fertility” genotypes are expected to come to dominate the population, causing the fertility rate to return to its pre-shock level. We show that even with relatively low levels of genetically based variation in fertility, there can be a rapid return to a high-fertility state, with recovery to above-replacement levels usually occurring within a few generations.
I haven’t had a chance to look at their paper closely, but the truth is, my own reaction aside I’d be much more interested in what other professional demographers make of it–Nick Eberstadt, Philip Morgan, Ron Lesthaeghe, etc.
Superficially, the general thesis would seem sound: Fertility rates are rarely constant across populations; over time the populations that reproduce will inherit the earth. That’s what Phil Longman was getting at in his much-discusses piece “Return of the Patriarchy.” And, as I point out in What to Expect, demographers such as Eric Kaufman and Vegard Skirbekk have also pointed out ways in which the Second Demographic Transition might be transitory. But it would seem that Collins and Richards are making a somewhat larger claim.
Regardless, their paper is a good reminder that, as I say over and over in What to Expect, we should always bear in mind that things change. Demography is not destiny; trend lines are sometimes interrupted–or even altered completely. As the financial services ads always disclaim, past performance is not indicative of future gains. But the limited horizon of our knowledge doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grappling with these important questions. It just means we should do so with a great deal of humility and care; always examining the subject with an open mind and in good faith. Which is what I tried to do in What to Expect.