Thursday, October 18th, 2012

The Decline of the Family

Joel Kotkin and some associates recently released a study they did for Singapore looking at changes in family dynamics in the modern era. Called “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” it examines the data around the decline of the family – the nuclear family with children, along with extended kin groups in some societies – as the fundamental ordering principle of society. This is because large numbers of people are not having children or not getting married at all. This trend has potentially profound implications for our future. In addition to the raw study, Joel wrote an article with an overview of the findings.

As Kotkin notes, “For most of human history, the family — defined by parents, children and extended kin — has stood as the central unit of society.” Today, that is increasingly no longer true. The decline of fertility rates has gotten a lot of press in terms of what it means for the aging of society, paying for entitlements, etc. But there’s been much less press on what it means for the structure of society as a whole not to be organized around families. This is an interesting look at some of what’s going on and some of the potential futures.

The statistics are interesting. Now nearly 20% of women aged 40-44 in the US have never had children. This means they likely never will. The percentage of people listing “children” as an important factor for a successful marriage has declined by 37% just since 1990. 30% of German women say they never plan to have children. Almost half of middle-aged German men say you can have a happy life without children. The data are even more stark in East Asia, where some project that a quarter of all women will still be single by age 50 and a third may never have kids. By 2030, a third of all men in Japan may still be unmarried by 1950. These changes, though still representing a minority of people, still represent a huge change from just a generation or two ago.

One primary outcome of this has been the collapse in fertility. Many who view overpopulation as one of the key challenges facing humanity or the global environment may cheer this. But many advanced societies now have total fertility rates in the low 1’s. This is the so called “lowest low” fertility rate that leads to civilizational collapse. It means that natural demographics are halving the population with every generation. As right-wing political commentator Mark Steyn has noted regarding this, the family tree has been turned upside down. Four grandparents have two children who have just one grandchild. Asian countries have been particularly affected by this, including Singapore (with a total fertility rate of just 1.15, hence their interest in the subject), Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. But European countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece are also advanced in fertility declines. Even the developing world – Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East – have seen huge declines in fertility.

What has caused this? Kotkin offers a few answers including a decline in traditional (especially religious) values; equal rights for women, especially in the workplace; and urbanization. These changes have not only had an objective impact in the numbers above, they have also changed society’s expectations around family life, which used to be normative. The unmarried or childless person in the 1950’s was an anomaly, maybe even a freak, and probably assumed to be gay at a time when that was not socially accepted. It was a choice with consequences to not have a family. That’s less true today. As Kotkin notes:

Societal norms, which once almost mandated family formation, have begun to morph. The new norms are reinforced by cultural influences that tend to be concentrated in the very areas — dense urban centres — with the lowest percentages of married people and children. A majority of residences in Manhattan are for singles, while Washington D.C. has one of the highest percentages of women who do not live with children, some 70%. Similar trends can be seen in London, Paris, Tokyo and other cultural capitals.

Social norms are set in the cultural capitals. They drive media portrayals of the good life, journalism, think tank research, etc. What these places do matters. Their changes could serve as a vanguard for what others will become soon.

New social norms have major implications for public policy. Among other things, a population of people who don’t have children is less likely to be concerned about the well-being of future generations, and thus unwilling to sacrifice for it. Per Kotkin:

A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future oriented requirements of children. Since older people vote more than younger ones, and children have no say at all, political power could shift towards non- childbearing people, at least in the short and medium term. We could tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared towards consuming or recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.

You may push back on the “now society” mentality by noting the high degree of social consciousness exhibited by single urban dwellers on stewardship issues like the environment. But I reject this because the policy choices represented by items like sustainability don’t represent a sacrifice to the advocates. In fact, those are the exact things they want anyway. The urban bike culture crowd and downtown carless singles aren’t riding bikes or transit out of some sense of duty even though they hate it. They do it because they like it. Similarly, green roofs, recycling, and other things don’t really represent sacrifices as these are lifestyle choices they are happy to make on the merits. When these single, childless urbanites start doing things they hate in order to benefit the future, then I’ll pay it more attention.

I’ve even seen the now society mentality affects people who do have families. The pattern traditionally was that parents sacrificed everything they had to in order to see that their children could have it better than they did, and have the absolute best chance of succeeding in life. Today, that’s less the case. The parents’ own self-gratification carries equal weight. For example, in the past many people moved to the suburbs when their kids reached school age. They moved into the best school district they could afford to give their kids a leg up in life. Today in Chicago, I know people who have decided to stay in the city and send their kids to Chicago Public Schools. As long as they get their kid into a merely adequate school, that’s ok with them. While some want to raise kids in the city for noble reasons like making a stand for turning around failing urban schools or ensuring their children are exposed to diverse populations, most of the people I know who’ve done it are quite open that their decision was made simply because the parents do not want to give up their urban lifestyle. Their own happiness is not something they are willing to sacrifice for their kids.

How this plays out in terms of inter-generational solidarity remains to be seen. If the kids imbibe the same attitude, mom and dad may not be so happy when it comes nursing home time. Also, younger generations may increasingly question why they are paying higher payroll taxes that seniors never had to pay in order to fund retirement benefits.

And for folks like me it may be even more stark. My grandmother was in the hospital last Christmas, and the family was able to come together to be with her. She knows she’ll be taken care of because of her children and grandchildren. But what about me? I’m 42 and don’t have any kids. This could be a scary prospect 20+ years from now. I always hear about people like my grandmother and the family rallying around. But how many older people even today have no one? Almost by definition, their story isn’t told, so we get a skewed sense of the world. When there are large numbers of old people with no kids, it will be a very different world.

Also, the divergent geography of the childless creates further problems in the politically polarized society in which we live. In researching an article I’m writing about Washington, DC, I got Kotkin’s stat on singles in the District. But the region as a whole has a child population percentage almost equal to the US average. Suburban DC counties like Loudoun, VA have some of the highest percentages of people under the age of 18 of any county in America.

As affluent people who choose to remain childless remain in more urban areas, and those who choose to have kids live in suburban ones, we’ll have legitimate matters of interest driving them apart politically. In a piece called “Geographies in Conflict” I noted how different economic geographies in the same physical space is an inherent conflict. Red states and blue states don’t just have different political points of views. They increasingly do different things. If you are Texas and are in the business of energy, chemicals, logistics, and manufacturing, the things that you need to be successful are very different from a Silicon Valley or Manhattan, which specialize in ultra-high end, high value service industries. The conflicts are as much a product of legitimate self-interest as political philosophy.

I think we’ll see similar conflicts between the needs, wants, and desires of the childless urban population and those of the suburban families with kids. It’s kind of nice to do your shopping daily on foot or by bicycle at the local market and such when you don’t have three kids to buy for and haul around with you. Bloomberg’s proposed micro-apartments in New York are an example of a market designed to cater to singles, not families. It’s not a matter of one being good and another bad. It’s merely that singles (or childless married couples) and people with children have very different priorities and concerns in life. To the extent that these are geographically segregated and the worldview of the other parties are increasingly foreign, I think we’ll see increasing political polarization and big sort type logic only grow, and city vs. suburb rhetoric of exactly the same type we are already hearing.

In any case, there’s a lot to ponder as the fundamental basis of society shifts from families to autonomous individuals and looser groupings. It is something that is likely to have a pervasive impact on pretty much everything that makes up our world. Read Kotkin’s report and then think through the issues for yourself.

40 Comments
Topics: Demographic Analysis, Urban Culture

40 Responses to “The Decline of the Family”

  1. Steve says:

    “We could tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared towards consuming or recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.” – I think one could argue that already happened a long time ago. The whole idea of sacrificing for tomorrow kind of died out in the post war era.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Families are not choosing to stay in the city and send their kids to city schools as a self-centered gesture; they are doing it because the suburbs are too expensive.

    My wife and I live in NYC with a small child, but I can’t conceive of moving to the suburbs, where housing is more expensive and transportation is more expensive. Plus, I feel that moving to the suburbs would lock me into a smaller geographic area for jobs, and a long commute would take me away from spending time with the family.

  3. Lou says:

    This is a silly post. The world just gained a billion people in the last decade. The USA is growing like a weed. If women are having fewer children by choice, good for them. If anything this change in demographics help inner cities. Lower number of people per household means lower amount of living space needed per household. It also means fewer crazy teens running through the cities (unlike the 1960’s and 70’s when the Baby boomers were young). The people need to learn that the planet can only support so many people, even fewer with a high a quality of life as is in developed world.

  4. Travis says:

    Have you read Immanuel Wallerstein’s work? I know he theorizes that traditional family structures are eroded because of ever-increasing proletarianization of the work force. Do think this applies at all to your post?

  5. Eli Naeher says:

    You may push back on the “now society” mentality by noting the high degree of social consciousness exhibited by single urban dwellers on stewardship issues like the environment. But I reject this because the policy choices represented by items like sustainability don’t represent a sacrifice to the advocates. In fact, those are the exact things they want anyway. The urban bike culture crowd and downtown carless singles aren’t riding bikes or transit out of some sense of duty even though they hate it. They do it because they like it. Similarly, green roofs, recycling, and other things don’t really represent sacrifices as these are lifestyle choices they are happy to make on the merits. When these single, childless urbanites start doing things they hate in order to benefit the future, then I’ll pay it more attention.

    What kinds of sacrifices do you see parents making to benefit future generations in general (not sacrifices that benefit only their own children)? I don’t really see that at all, and I think we need to see a lot more data before concluding that parents are more future-oriented than childless people. When I think of political issues that parents are specifically interested in I think of things like safety and crime–which to me are very now-oriented issues. The one exception might be education, but even there, often the parents’ interest doesn’t extend any further than their own children, and they are just as happy to find solutions that don’t benefit the larger community–like sending their kids to private schools–as ones that do.

  6. John M says:

    Wow, Aaron. While your overall body of work is excellent, this post is a mess. Allow me to focus on one particular issue.

    You say: “[I]n the past many people moved to the suburbs when their kids reached school age. They moved into the best school district they could afford to give their kids a leg up in life. Today in Chicago, I know people who have decided to stay in the city and send their kids to Chicago Public Schools. As long as they get their kid into a merely adequate school, that’s ok with them.”

    Later you say: “As affluent people who choose to remain childless remain in more urban areas, and those who choose to have kids live in suburban ones, we’ll have legitimate matters of interest driving them apart politically.”

    First, I think you have an overly idealistic view of suburban flight in this country. Setting aside the destructive aspects of such flight to the urban fabric and to the environment, it was motivated in no small part by racial animus and fear. I’m by no means saying this is the only reason or the primary reason that people make such moves today, but trying to paint those who led the wave to the cornfields as purely sacrificing seems off. Are you suggesting that the adults, those who moved to suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s, got nothing out of the deal? My sense is that the grownups were genuinely excited about more square footage, a big yard, central air, a two car garage, etc. It was marketed as the wave of the future and as superior to urban living. Plenty of people still find it to be superior to urban living. As the negative aspects of postwar suburbanization became more clear, more have rejected it, although the trend continues overall.

    Further, and this is something that has rankled me about your writing over the years, you seem to have a simplistic, test scores-focused view on what constitutes a “good school.” It’s a simple reality that regardless of the quality of the faculty, the administration, the facilities, or the course offerings, a school with an economically homogeneous population always is going to look better on paper than an economically mixed school. I reject the notion that I’m being selfish if I decide to buck the trend. Of course, I wouldn’t send my children to a school that is dangerous or is incompetently run, but it’s unfortunate that you don’t believe that a parent can look at a school and say, “yes, the standardized test scores are middling, but there are doing a number of things that will be great for my kid.” If it sounds like I’m taking this personally, you’re goddamn right I am. You essentially are calling me and my neighbors selfish parents because we aren’t contributing to a trend that you, of all people, should know is destructive and unsustainable. (For the record, I live in Indianapolis and send my kids to parochial school. But plenty of my neighbors send their kids to IPS magnets and charters despite the means to do otherwise, and we happily would be doing the same if we didn’t really like our parish school). I know that Indy is quite different from more dense and affluent cities such as New York and Chicago (I have a driveway and a yard AND a short and cheap commute).

    Then, in the second excerpt, you seem to be decrying the stratification. I just can’t grasp your point. On one hand, you seem to regard the divide as troubling, yet you paint those who are bucking the trend as selfish. Again, I’m lost. Maybe this is one of those semiannual “poke my allies in the eye” posts that have long been part of your repertoire. But it doesn’t make much sense.

  7. Matthew Hall says:

    Where you live and where you work and socialize are different, but equally important, things. More than half the people in Manhattan at noon on a tuesday are not residents of Manhattan. The divisions are ones of class, not children. Follow where people spend their time hour by hour and those who spend time in more dense and central locations are higher income than those who don’t, whether they have children or not.

  8. Brad says:

    This is truly a disappointing piece. My wife and I are “childless” adults living in the urban core of Louisville, KY. So therefore, because we have no kids, we could not possibly care about the future of our neighbors’, friends’ or other family members’ children. I guess it should not surprise me that this is inspired from something that Joel Kotkin has written. It disappoints me that you would simply agree with him and place all childless people and all parents into boxes.

    The truth is, I know many parents. My siblings have kids. My friends have kids. My neighbors have kids. Oddly, many of these families have something in common: they are incredibly selfish people. While, they think of the future of their kids in general, no concern is placed on the bettering of the community for the benefit of other people or families. As a human society, we have become detached from one another. This is something that has become a trend over many decades and not something to be blamed on childless or child-raising people.

    Anyone not viewing climate change and pollution as a problem for future generations will receive no respect from me. We drive very little, reduce our consumption, reuse items, recycle when necessary and volunteer in our community. We don’t do this because it is easy. IT IS DIFFICULT. IT IS A SACRIFICE. I hate sorting the recycling. I would rather not be sweaty when I arrive at my destination by bicycle. I wish that I didn’t feel the need to consider things such as leaving my thermostat at lower or higher temperature settings to reduce electricity consumption, reducing water consumption and growing my own food. It is insulting to hear someone who does not know me simply reject the idea that I am making sacrifices for future generations. Do I feel good about making such sacrifices? Yes. I hope to do more. But, I also feel good when the bathroom and the floors are clean, too.

    I wish that we could reverse the trend of suburbanization. Current policies and economic conditions created by such policies will not allow for an easy turn-around. Urbanites and suburbanites are being portrayed as enemies. We have real problems to address. We need cities to be attractive to families. We need suburbs to become more sustainable or less appealing. People like Kotkin have an agenda and are part of the problem. He is not interested in looking for solutions.

    Finally, Joel Kotkin is not someone to be preaching about how decisions affect future generations. While he raises real concerns (caring for elderly and economic challenges), he cannot resist the temptation to demonize those living in cities. Because, well, we are short-sighted and could not possibly consider other people or families. He loves to use statistics to point to the current trend of suburbanization and claim victory against evil urbanites. Yet, he ignores the problems created by the current trends. The current trends are not sustainable. These problems will place a heavy burden on our children. Or should I say everyone else’s children?

  9. Michelle Stenzel says:

    You threw a lot into this post, thought-provoking as ever. But I agree with some of the points raised by John M. I don’t think people in the 1950s-1980s moved to the suburbs just “for the kids”; they did it because it was the thing to do back then, for the big house with the yard and the two-car garage, for their own pleasure, convenience and maybe status. Many of today’s city parents, who grew up in those suburbs (myself included), simply don’t buy into the argument that owning two cars and a patch of grass is the key to a happy life, or that a kid has to attend a so-called “top rated” school in order to get a good education. So, we choose much smaller dwellings in the city, walk to the grocery store, send our kids to perfectly acceptable public schools, and recognize the real value for the whole family found in the lively urban neighborhoods we call home.

  10. Travis says:

    Brad, I think you’re taking this a bit too personally. I don’t think he is saying you are a selfish person. And he is not saying that childless urbanites do not make any sacrifices. I believe his point was that parents have more of an imperative to provide for their offspring, whereas young urban dwellers do the things they do, such as biking to work, as a choice. You could stop at any point without a great deal of immediate negative consequences. A parent cannot simply choose to stop supporting their children. It doesn’t help the public discourse when someone like you gets so infuriated by someone else’s well intended analyses.

  11. Brad says:

    Travis, thank you for your comment. I am not so much infuriated as annoyed.

    From the post:

    “New social norms have major implications for public policy. Among other things, a population of people who don’t have children is less likely to be concerned about the well-being of future generations, and thus unwilling to sacrifice for it. Per Kotkin:

    A society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future oriented requirements of children. Since older people vote more than younger ones, and children have no say at all, political power could shift towards non- childbearing people, at least in the short and medium term. We could tilt more into a ‘now’ society, geared towards consuming or recreating today, as opposed to nurturing and sacrificing for tomorrow.

    You may push back on the “now society” mentality by noting the high degree of social consciousness exhibited by single urban dwellers on stewardship issues like the environment. But I reject this because the policy choices represented by items like sustainability don’t represent a sacrifice to the advocates. In fact, those are the exact things they want anyway. The urban bike culture crowd and downtown carless singles aren’t riding bikes or transit out of some sense of duty even though they hate it. They do it because they like it. Similarly, green roofs, recycling, and other things don’t really represent sacrifices as these are lifestyle choices they are happy to make on the merits. When these single, childless urbanites start doing things they hate in order to benefit the future, then I’ll pay it more attention.”

    Read this and tell me again that he is not saying that childless urbanites do no make sacrifices for future generations. If I am doing these things “as a choice” then why am I doing them? For the feeling of smugness and self superiority?

    I agree that parents have an obligation to care for their children and their future. So, it would seem we should be able to count on families to care for our future. But are we really to say that only child-raising families will care for the future planning of our communities? Indeed, this seems to be what the post and Kotkin article are insinuating.

    Furthermore, I am only here to offer another side to the assertions made in this post. We are here to discuss. When you refer to me as “someone like you (who) gets so infuriated,” are you really interested in any public discourse? The analysis here may be well-intended. I reserve the right to disagree with such analysis and make it known.

  12. Brad, in aggregate, I do believe childless individuals are less willing to sacrifice for the well-being of future generations than those who have children. And that the shift towards large numbers of childless people will affect the value set of everyone in it ultimate (with kids or without)

    The reality of the now society is perfectly evidenced by our generation’s willingness to incur massive amounts of national debt – an outright wealth transfer from the future to the present. The penchant for privatization deals like the Chicago parking meter contract could also be seen in this light.

    If you listen to Paul Krugman and other advocates excoriate “austerity” because it will lead to short term contractions, it is highly revealing. The idea is that we should burden future generations so that we can minimize our own present pain. It’s a far cry from Thomas Paine’s “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace”

    Whether Krugman or anybody else has kids, I don’t know. As I noted, the culture is made in the increasingly childless capitals, and resulting changes in societal values as a result of demographic shifts affect all of us (not just those with no kids).

  13. costanza says:

    “This is a silly post.”

    Are you surprised?

  14. costanza says:

    “If you listen to Paul Krugman and other advocates excoriate “austerity” because it will lead to short term contractions, it is highly revealing.”

    What’s revealing is your ignorance of economics.

  15. Brad says:

    Aaron, I appreciate your response. I understand your point of view. On the surface, it would seem that families with children have more reason to care for the future. Still, I do not believe that this is true in reality.

    You are right to point out national debt as a problem for future generations. Where I cannot follow is your placement of blame on a culture that is “made in the increasingly childless capitals.” Our national debt and debt in general is to be blamed on the childless? I would wager that most politicians at all levels of government have children. Whether we are from previous or current generations, with and without children, we have not proven to be efficient at handling fiscal issues in this country.

    “Resulting changes in societal values?” I can understand some level of fear on this front. If we became a society out of balance with vastly more childless families than those with children, I could see this as a problem. I do not see this happening and I do not believe our society will begin to devalue schools, safe neighborhoods, and other community qualities important to families with children.

    Going back to Kotkin, he likes to point to trends supported with statistics. He is good at seeing the current situation. However, he is neither good at seeing the underlying factors creating such situations nor is he interested in helping to solve problems facing our communities. Furthermore, he constantly seeks to portray suburbanites and urbanites as enemies. This is more what Kotkin is about and this is becoming reality.

    I live in a decent urban neighborhood (certainly not perfect) with a diverse range of families with and without children. When speaking with friends and family from the suburbs, I usually hear something along the lines of, “I cannot believe you live there. Isn’t there a lot of crime and stuff? Isn’t it noisy? Are there any parks? I hear the schools are awful.” These are common misperceptions among my suburban friends and family. I wish they were easy to change.

  16. Thanks, Brad. I don’t think we’ll necessarily see a radical overnight shift. But even a turn of the dial here and there can have major impacts over the long run. Time will tell.

    Many suburbanites don’t go into the city and have some irrational beliefs about it. OTOH, there’s plenty of urbanist literature ascribing all sorts of ills to the suburbs. And the marketing of the city rarely stresses any family oriented aspects of it. (Interestingly, in Indianapolis a lot of the urban crowd does seem to have kids. Part of it is that housing is so cheap that even an artist in Fountain Square can be a single family homeowner. I believe they are trying to find a way to market that aspect of it).

  17. Could it be that living in the suburbs and doing things like our grandparents did is just plain dumb now?

    I’m 25 and the idea of living in the suburbs for better schools, whether I had kids or not, is just dumb, especially if I were working in the city. Gas is expensive and is only going to cost more, traffic is a waste of time (and life), and road projects to and fro aren’t sustainable.

    The idea of having kids doesn’t offend me, it just doesn’t make sense to me considering the cost. Could it be that people are being priced out of having a kid? Between the medical expense around birth and onwards, and the expense of educating a child and planning for college, am I wrong in thinking, “I can’t ever possibly afford the kind of good things I want for my kid given the current and ongoing economic environment, so maybe it’s better for me and the kid not to have one?”

  18. James says:

    I find it curious to hear and read people question the source of declining birth rates. It has long been established that higher education – particularly for women – leads to lower birth rates. That this simple explanation is so often ignored leads me to wonder if people proposing alternative explanations are being mendacious in their arguments.

    As far as cities go, they are gaining an influx of new residents. As they always have. American cities have largely grown from immigration. Usually from overseas, but often too regional transplants. The story of this age is the migration from suburbs to cities: a reversal of a very long trend.

  19. peter says:

    James the urbanophile used to be interesting, reasoning has long since left this blog. It’s now some stats and no thinking.

  20. John Vranicar says:

    It’s well documented that for decades there are new familial patterns emerging that may not look a lot like the suburban nuclear two-parent family or the extended family that preceded it. I suggest that those worried about the decline of the “traditional family” take a deep breath and read some of the sociology before getting too worked up about the current changes, which, btw, at this point are nothing new, anyway. There’s a lot of good news out there regarding non-traditional families. Great news, in fact. And there always has been .. b/cs “traditional” when it comes to families is rarely more than 50 years old. Families have been in a constant state of evolution, and generally adapt to social changes in ways so subtle, instinctive and creative, that it takes awhile to figure out that they continue to be the bedrock — just not in the precise ways that they were “when we were growing up” … whenever that was. We should all chill and enjoy, not hand-wring.

  21. aim says:

    “I do believe childless individuals are less willing to sacrifice for the well-being of future generations than those who have children”

    From my very biased viewpoint of one half a of childless couple, this is bunk. Every year, we pay thousands of dollars a year in taxes to support our local school system from which we ask nothing. We do so willingly because we recognize the value of quality schools to our community. Likewise, we support a number of organizations that serve our greater community. Part of the reason we’re able to do this is because we don’t have children and the time and money that would be spent on raising kids can go back into our community. I don’t claim to speak for all childless couples. But the idea that we’re all a bunch of self-centered me-firsters unconcerned with the future of our communities is rubbish.

  22. Dan Wolf' says:

    This started out as a discussion on lower fertility rates impacting societies and especially urban societies; beginning with the “global cultural capitals”.This is a complex subject because many variables come into play resulting from lifestle choices. It is therefore difficult to generalize and speculate about effects.But here are a few of my generalizations: Parents are very protective of their children’s well being; presently and in the future.In a world full of evils and competitive pressures parental protection is understandable and necessary. I am a parent of four and grandfather of six & counting. I say we accept this and yet also encourage a broader view of a desireable society for many different callings and interests. Parents can easily learn that what is good for others can also be good for themselves. (they teach their children that to some extent). There is a very amazing passage in the bible; Jeremiah 29:7″and seek the welfare of the CITY where I have caused you to dwell,and pray to me on its behalf, because in its welfare you will have welfare”.This is wisdom that calls us to greater maturity. Suburban parental selfishness is a problem I grant.I deal with it in land use rezoning hearings.I try to help people see a broader interest.Example:I had the”selfish parents”0pposing an 8 acre retail center that Ihad a vision to anchor with two sit-down restaurants in affluent suburbia. Another developer had the same issue concerning a Publix across the main artery.Both centers were rezoned and built in an attractive manner. And both centers are greatly patronized by the same people I met opposing them.The point I want to make is that helping people to see an interest outside of their immediate concerns (usually unfounded fears)is good for all.
    With respect to the urbansuburban divide I am convinced that a humble listening and learning process about the respective strengths and contributions everyone makes in thwonder making micro civilizations called major metros will bring a measure of peace to the metros. Both the bible and economic fundamentals clearly teach the design and necessity for a wide variety of interests,callings and dare I say socio-economic status. That is OK. I am not a gifted business executive who can lead say Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati, but those who are provide an enormous opportunity for the rest of us more average skilled folks. So whereever they live and how they spend their wealth is their accountability. I am glad they are so skilled and bring so much wealth to the City.With wealth comes lots of urban culture, higher education, sports etc.
    We are all benefited when we encourage everyone to do their best and accept different outcomes without finding fault.
    I value both urban and suburban dynamics. Each serves the purposes of those who work and live there.We would do our cities a great good to understand the history and contribution that each area of the city has made.

  23. Everyone gets it that if you pump massive amounts of chemicals into the environment, you will change it. Why don’t people understand that if you introduce changes to fundamental constructs of human society, there will be changes to many other aspects of that society? There are some fairly obvious implications of childlessness, declining natural demographics (a short term demographic dividend, longer term falling population sans immigration, aging population, elderly with no children to care for them, etc) for example. Other changes may be speculative, but clearly we should expect some. Some of them might even be positive. Obviously I don’t think childless people are evil as (as my post indicated) I’m one of them myself.

  24. James says:

    Well Aaron, that is an interesting topic for discussion. It is too bad that wasn’t the blog post. Instead this post focused on people being selfish. Selfish for not having children. Selfish for not moving to the suburbs. So instead of talking about substance we get a discussion about bad people.

    Back to the topic of cities, what are some implications of low birth rates for cities? Well first there may be less need for schools. Would that lower property taxes in a city? Does it mean more immigrants are needed? If so would this change anything? Aren’t cities in America largely hubs of immigration?

  25. Well, James, clearly societies in demographic decline need immigrants to stave off population problems. Japan seems willing to simply decline as they don’t want immigrants. Europe has brought in a lot of immigrants, esp from the Middle East and Africa, but has failed to integrate them. America has a long track record of successful immigrant integration, so that should give us a leg up. We also have had birth rates near replacement level until the recent recession.

    The less need for schools is the “demographic dividend” I referred to in the short term. Having children implies a short term cost as they don’t do much for 18-22 years in terms of economic production. So if you don’t have kids, your expenditures on that decline. On the other hand, your future labor force shrinks, which produces long term problems, particularly for pensioners.

    On the selfishness thing though, I think we should use a more economically neutral term: time preference. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that on average childless people have a more near term time preference than those with children. The highly negative reactions to this idea to me are very like anything that in any way implies dense inner cities have any negative characteristics whatsoever. No matter what the topic, the drumbeat is always “suburbs bad, cities good.” I’ve yet to see urbanists concede any attribute of life in which they don’t claim the central city is superior, or at least would be superior if not for nefarious outside forces like subsidies to the suburbs, highway buildings, etc.

    But back to the discussion, thinking in terms of time preference, there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with the now society. If you put a high enough discount rate on the future, the time horizon of investment shortens. It’s just basic preference logic. And in a sense we could simply punt problems to the future on the logic that they’ll likely have better technology, probably be wealthier, etc. and thus have an easier time solving them than we would.

    There’s no objective standard by which to arbitrate the claims of various people living in different times. But clearly changing the discount rate by which we resolve that conflict has big implications for what society does. (It might explain our unwillingless to invest in long term infrastructure, for example).

  26. Quimbob says:

    You’d probably be better off covering this in a book instead of a blogpost.
    :-)
    You’re discussion of regionalism could have been applicable to the US in 1850.
    Pat Buchanan discussed some of the political ramifications of birth rate variances amongst racial/cultural demographics in his last book, ‘Suicide of a Superpower’, which was kinda interesting. Of course it got him branded a racist & kicked off MSNBC, but…..

  27. Agree with Quimbob – there are too many variations, nuances and exceptions to discuss this topic in a short blog post. The article, as written, basically comes down to “Parents care, child-less adults do not.”

  28. I had always wondered why New Orleans, a city with a reasonably strong urbanist culture, particularly for the South, had such amazing upscale, locally-run restaurants–not just in the French Quarter (them’s for the tourists) but scattered throughout most of the economically healthy (i.e. >50% white) neighborhoods. This is a city, of course, that has its strong and well-connected educated professional class, but it is not terribly large (definitely below 25% at least pre-Katrina) and the gap between it and “the rest” is probably bigger than just about any other city in the country. As recently as the 1990s, one out of every nine people in New Orleans was living in public housing. The city has no white working class neighborhoods to speak of in its city limits.

    But they have a lot of fancy restaurants. Within a small amount of time I came to learn that such a high percentage of the professionals had been blessed with childlessness that of course they could support these establishments. It is a culture that goes out for fine dining routinely because that is how the population, by and large, chooses to spend its disposable income. Even as in most of the South, people marry and start families young, New Orleans is filled with unmarried and childless fortysomethings. With failing schools even in most of the suburbs, persistent crime, and a climate that makes homeownership extremely costly and high-maintenance, the feather in New Orleans’ cap is that it’s a stimulating and rewarding place to live, particularly if you don’t have children. Kids wouldn’t want to eat at most of these restaurants anyway, and the restaurateurs know it would hurt their bottom line to cater to them.

    Aaron, you understandably irked a few by saying that the childless tend to be selfish, but you raised such a good point that the behaviors of the urban childless (bike riding, recycling, community gardening) are the things they would be doing anyway, so it is less out of sacrifice. But perhaps their sacrifice is not having children out of a broader Weltanschauung–a desire to nurture the surroundings in a way that they couldn’t with children, since children do take both time and money?

    The one perspective from this dialogue I simply cannot sympathize with is the notion that parents are automatically selfish simply by virtue of having children–since, they argue, raising children causes parents to disengage with immediate social problems, while they raise a new generation of greedy consumers. I’m no humanist, but this idea that “breeders” are perpetuating social and ecological problems–an idea widely espoused among supporters of the UK periodical The Guardian–completely discounts the notion that humanity also has the intellectual capacity to reconcile itself with or even to remedy environmental degradation, war, famine etc. I hope never to be as cynical as the urbanite who views children only as a dehumanized consuming entity.

  29. TMLutas says:

    Lord Keynes famously said “In the long run, we are all dead”. For the childless, it is certainly true. Consequences for them and theirs are time limited. If the piper’s bill can come due after a certain date, everyone they care about will not be there to pay for it. For those who have children, this is not knowably true. The phrase “apres nous le deluge” becomes distinctly less attractive when your children or further descendants may well be there when the inevitable “deluge” comes around.

    In simpler societies such relationships are more easy to perceive and pick out than in more complex societies. It is undeniable that urban environments generate more complexity. This makes it easier to hide the long-term consequences of certain policy prescriptions and at least partially explains their increased attractiveness in urban environments for a given layer of data sophistication in the general population. There is thus a certain benefit for keeping ordinary people ignorant and uninvolved in the workings of society. They are the suckers that put off “le deluge” past the effective limit of the cares of the ordinary, self-interested childless.

    In economic terms, ignorance delays the adjustment of expectations. It is this adjustment of expectations that renders certain Keynesian features such as the phillips curve problematic. You would expect the anti-Keynesians to be strong on information technology efforts to increase the diffusion of knowledge that would make the Keynesian shell game work less well. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case too often.

  30. Nate says:

    This post conflates two things: The “now” society and adults without children. As the first commenter pointed out, American society has had an entire generation of overwhelming selfishness, led demographically and politically by nuclear families. Blaming this greed (debt, lack of infrastructure spending, lack of education spending, unfunded liabilities in pensions; the bubble of consumerism more generally etc) on adults without children is such a leap that it can’t be taken too seriously as an argument.

    This idea that a decrease in childbearing means society will be less future oriented is ridiculous. Parents are future oriented for their own children, they have proven to NOT be future oriented in terms of societal priorities, at least in America over the last 40 years. Ironically, the people “sacrificing” by moving to the suburbs have done a great deal of damage to future generations in the aggregate, even as they (perhaps) provide a benefit to their children. In other words, someone can put a priority on the future vis a vis their children while putting a priority on the present vis a vis society at large. We’ve seen it. We’re still living in it.

    Also, if we’re going to assign all these value-based critiques based on childbearing, it’s worth examining the considerable harm dealt to society by people who decide to have children without having the financial/social/psychological means of raising their children effectively. Would you prefer a broke, uneducated, single women having five children she can’t feed or teach over the educated and community-minded single woman? It’s not just having kids, it’s having them and being responsible enough to raise them well. In terms of impact on the future, adults without children couldn’t possible come close to having the negative impact on the future that bad parents have. As it related to impacting the future, there is nobody more selfish than the person who has a kid that they cannot or will not raise effectively.

  31. John says:

    Nate:

    Great points, and well stated.

  32. Nate, it’s certainly possible that a self-centered society is what drove the decline of marriage and children as a norm. However, be careful of extrapolating American generational trends as explaining a global phenomenon.

  33. John says:

    Aaron:

    I don’t think Nate is saying what you attribute to him. I think his point is that parents can be as selfish as childless people to the extent that [some/many] parents focus on the specific good of their specific offspring, as opposed to the more generalized welfare of what’s generally good for the next generation. Certainly there’s a great deal of overlap between what’s good for one’s own children and what’s good for all children. But not always. One example would be parents who, in response to inferior public schools, put their kids in private schools instead of public schools, thereby contributing to the general decline in quality of public education. Is a parent “wrong” to do this? I’m not arguing that. But if you invoke the Kantian categorical imperative, it would be better for “society” and the “next generation” if all parents put their kids in public schools and forced public schools to perform better. My point is that parents make a lot of individualized choices in favor of their kids that are not necessarily in the best interests of “all kids.” In other words, there exists a type of parental selfishness that, at least some of the time, feels pretty similar to individual selfishness: Me and mine first.

    As far as anyone suggesting that the decision to not have kids is somehow self-centered? Back in the 70s, zero population growth was a real and true thing, and motivated some number of couples to not have kids at all. And a lot of younger couples today are not postponing having kids because it would eat into their own restaurant budget, but because they sincerely aren’t sure that they can provide adequately for their kids. That feels merely … responsible. So hard to generalize on this one.

    I guess I’m just suspicious of generalizing when attributing motives and cause-and-effect to something as complex as the decision-making process about having kids and, then, once you have them, about a parent’s overall altruism about the next generation, as compared to childless kids.

    One last example: Why do so many elderly people who raised kids of their own and now have grandkids vote against school bonds? If, as you posit, parents are more altruistic than non-parents, why would so many grandparents suddenly have the altruism switch turned off once their own kids are out of high school?

    Just sayin …

  34. CityBeautiful21 says:

    Some thoughts on this piece, trying to avoid ground already covered:

    1. I think the number of people who think about overpopulation as a problem in general is very small compared to the population in the US, and the number of people who make decisions about family planning due to global population concerns is infinitesimal. Most people do not worry about this issue either way.

    2. Are social norms truly set in cultural capitals? This claim needs some data behind it. Our cultural capitals have, in recent years: banned smoking, cracked down on trans fats, and adopted policies designed to reduce the carbon footprints of their citizens. If trends from our increasingly lower-child-per-capita urban centers are being adopted across the country, there should be data that bears this out. My travels bring me to Charleston, WV each year, and I can tell you that driving along a certain highway leads one to pass billboards that revel in the political bromides of the coal industry and say that EPA scientists are liars, and that a visit to the mall is showcase for obesity, teen pregnancy, and tobacco use.

    There are also whole tv networks and many op-ed columnists (like Kotkin) who spend a considerable portion of their time decrying east coast urban elitists/college professors, etc., and there are a lot of people who watch their shows, buy their books, and even read New Geography. If the urban cultural centers are so powerful, why haven’t places like Charleston “gotten with the program,” and why is there such a successful anti-urban-coastal media complex?

    3. “Among other things, a population of people who don’t have children is less likely to be concerned about the well-being of future generations, and thus unwilling to sacrifice for it.” Just not true. My experience dovetails with John’s. I have an elderly relative who had 6 kids. The second their last child was out of the public schools, they were complaining about school taxes. This was the case despite the fact that their 8+ grandchildren were beginning to enter the same town’s school system. By sheer numbers, you could say their stake in the school system should have been growing. Nope.

    4. “When these single, childless urbanites start doing things they hate in order to benefit the future, then I’ll pay it more attention.” I must be missing an example you’re thinking of. Please name an activity that suburban, child-rearing parents are engaging in that they hate to benefit the future broadly, and not just their own children.

    5. “While some want to raise kids in the city for noble reasons like making a stand for turning around failing urban schools or ensuring their children are exposed to diverse populations, most of the people I know who’ve done it are quite open that their decision was made simply because the parents do not want to give up their urban lifestyle. Their own happiness is not something they are willing to sacrifice for their kids.” For a guy who is quick to point out that it is silly for all cities to pursue creative-class-hipster-amenities-around-biotech/life-science-clusters economic development strategy, it is disappointing that you have embedded the notion that suburban schools are always better than urban ones in this paragraph, and that to not acknowledge that and act as a parent is a totem of self-centered-ness.

    When I look at the local policy debates in my community, it is the younger and mostly childless set that is fighting for policies that would allow more affordable housing and moderate-income families to live in our urbanizing college town. It is older, wealthy, white boomers (regardless of whether or not they raised children) living in suburban subdivisions doing their best to prevent others from sharing in our community’s prosperity, and harming the prospects of the next generation. It’s hard to say whether this dichotomy has more to do with age or with a suburban/urban divide.

    Bottom line: there are civic-motivated and self-motivated people everywhere, and most people are a mix of the two along a continuum, and sometimes prize one value over the other. Having a child is not an indicator variable that you are one or the other.

  35. Matt D says:

    Milwaukee is a full 90 miles from Chicago. It won’t be subsumed into Chicagoland in our lifetimes or even our children’s lifetimes.

    Keep in mind that Philly is roughly the same distance from NYC (really much closer if you go by city limits; they’re around 55 miles apart by city limits)) and the two cities are still totally distinct, even though NYC and Philly are a much, much bigger pair than Chicago and Milwaukee (with corresponding greater geographic span).

    NYC also has huge home price disparaties with Philly (which isn’t the case with Chicago-Milwaukee), yet even that hasn’t been enough to create a single metro. One would think that supercommuting would be driven by home price disparaties. There’s some of that, but not enough to create a single metro.

    So maybe NYC-Philly in 30 years or something, and Chicago-Milwaukee in 150 years or something. Too far off to really do any planning.

  36. REALTOWN says:

    How do we characterize the suburban families where “good schools” means:
    1) Not too many undesirable children.
    2) I don’t have to pay tuition and my money can
    go to my Great Room, and my Media Room, and my
    impressive cars, and my….

  37. A few thoughts on the parts of this comment thread that seem irrelevant to the effects of birth rates:

    1.) The idea that choosing to ride a bike, or knock your temperature down a few degrees, or sorting recycling is some huge sacrifice is laughable. Though it is equivalent to Mr. Renn’s constant complaining about light bulbs.

    2.) Let’s just agree that anyone can be selfish whether they have kids or not. I have them and they haven’t made me any less selfish.

    3.) The Krugman citation and analysis is not the best thing Mr. Renn has ever offered. By a lot.

    More to the point, declining population can lead to a declining economy and as mentioned in the beginning of the post a declining civilization. Short of a baby boom, the easiest answer to this is immigration. The fact that one half of the country practically has a cranial hemorrhage any time it’s mentioned is a real problem.

    Additionally, these same people tend to also be deficit hawks and hence don’t want to invest in anything, whether it be short or long-term. Being so obsessed with a percentage of spending so you don’t invest in ANY generation isn’t selfish; It’s stupid.

  38. Stlplanr says:

    Ironically, the tradition of marriage and family would be better upheld, if conservatives would recognize the expansion of marriage and adoption to loving and willing same-sex couples. Sure, there is less direct boost to fertility, but why work so hard to discourage those actually willing to form a larger household?

    And since gay and lesbians often meet in more accepting cities, living beside and socializing with childless straights, gay-headed families also ironically become ambassadors for all traditional families. Basically, gay marriage and adoption exposes even the most liberal of childless urbanites to the virtues of family. But sadly, few realize just how pro-family (or norm-based) the “gay agenda” actually is.

  39. bettybarcode says:

    Kotkin has a provocative thesis and I’ve been musing on it ever since first reading Renn’s riff on it.

    I agree that mature people and mature societies depend on the capacity for self-sacrifice. Learning that the universe does not exist to gratify your every want and whim is essential for achieving adulthood.

    However, I am not sure that childrearing is the only opportunity for self-sacrifice in our society. Kotkin seems to think that the only possible alternative to child-rearing is solipsistic self-gratification. I would disagree.

    Military service requires huge sacrifices. If losing a spouse, parent or child in combat is not a sacrifice, I don’t know what is. So is ordination to the priesthood or ministry or acceptance into a monastery or nunnery.

    Childlessness actually enables certain kinds of sacrifice. For example, by not having to support children of their own, adults can accept lower-wage nonprofit/human service jobs that serve essential needs and ideals.

    A law school graduate with children probably has to seek the higher-wage corporate job regardless of her ideals, whereas one without children can seek the low-wage legal aid work that inspired her to go to law school in the first place.

    For me, community service is the rent I owe for living on this planet. Since I do not have children, I have time for volunteer work, nonprofit board service, and participation at the kinds of meetings and hearings essential for a functioning local democracy. I even have a little left over from my crappy-wage nonprofit job to donate to causes I believe in.

    I know many people who did not have children for whatever reason. They all seem clustered in teaching, librarianship, health care, and other professions organized around public service and the welfare of others.

  40. BG Jeff says:

    Always take anything Joel Kotkin writes with a grain of salt. He hails from the extreme right wing Chapman University. His books and articles are Orange County-centric and he is an unabashed urban sprawl aficianado. While he frames his discussions as urban analyses, he is really just a water-carrier for the Cato Institute/Heritage Foundation-types, trying to shore up the final days of the sprawl/freeway/car/consumption/suburban-industrial complex. The presumption that people who choose not to breed are somehow ‘selfish’ or that single urbanites are ‘now-centric’ is appauling. The most “selfish, me-first, wasteful, climate-change-denying, non-sacrificing-for-the-better-good” types, I have ever met hail from the bucolic exurbs of our major cities. Read between the lines in any of Joel’s writings: he always concludes that the only ‘solution’ for any societal problem is reduced density, a return to traditional family structures (including women back in the home), and adoption of religion.

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