Western middle-class people plan1. They have always planned. They believe in savings and insurance and contingencies. For the last few hundred years this has really worked to our benefit — right up until the invention of the birth control pill.
Now, for the first time, we have control over whether and when we reproduce, beyond the rather imperfect control that trying to plan sex and marriage formerly provided. This new addition to our quiver of planning tools has changed everything.
The same culture that once prospered wildly, conquering famine and infant mortality and most diseases — allowing its practitioners to raise children more prolifically than any other in history — has now become a demographic death trap. The very worry, ambition, caution and competitive status seeking that fueled our culture of previously profitable planning today has us planning our children out of existence.
Having children is delayed for the sake of education and career advancement and the beginning of a financial nest egg. It is delayed for the sowing of wild oats (over a ridiculous number of seasons) and the accelerated accumulation of middle class wealth and its symbols — and such accumulation continues far beyond the level minimally necessary for the reliable and safe rearing of children. We live in what Phillip Longman has accurately called “empty McMansions,” large modern houses with three car garages and fourth bedrooms and tubs the size of aquaculture ponds –but with only two residents living inside the cavernous space. And even ensconced in such a place, we plan to have more before we do anything rash and consequential, such as “bring a child into the world.”
Children are delayed as well for “self-fulfillment” — emotional hedonism with a more self-fulfilling name. In their stead, we travel and date and accumulate the well-marketed totems of our success. For some, a child will never be permissible, since children have their own ideas about whose self-fulfillment is paramount. So a few grey-haired adolescents continue their dead-end materialistic masturbations and trophy seeking all the way to well-planned perpetual care burial plots.
The predilection to worry that once made us ideal parents in a dangerous world in which numerous children simply happened, now sends middle-aged first-time mothers into tizzies over the acquired risk of trisomies and miscarriages and defects that our previous plans have created. So for many, no child will end up fitting into the perfect world we crave. For others, only one or two children can safely be had under acceptably perfect conditions.
This behavior is one of the great ironies of our well-planned yet unintentional demographic demise. The few children that do make it into our plans are themselves then planned for so lavishly and lovingly that the perfect standard we set cannot be met for a total of more than one or two children. Each ideal conceptus must be dressed in perfect new clothes and assigned an individual bedroom. Each must have a college fund and a colossal collection of toys and gizmos.
And each must have a schedule of practices and recitals and tutoring and high status consumption so demanding that it can only be met by planning to not have more than a sibling or two. For many potential second and third and fourth children, the world we would plan for them is so ideal that it will have to remain simply an ideal. We have planned them into a practical impossibility and so they are never born.
Occasionally, the vagaries of biology and chance intervene, despite all our plans. This is among the most-feared of all known modern crises: the “unplanned pregnancy.” At this point, “Planned Parenthood” must be called upon. A more honest name for the service might be “Planned Barrenhood,” since it is not our plans for parenthood that are threatened by some child’s catastrophically unplanned appearance. It is just the plan for a bachelor’s degree and a McMansion, or a Ph.D. and a bungalow, or the avant-garde and an urban loft. Notice that I do not include here those who honestly cannot afford to have a child. I am speaking about those for whom a child would simply not fit into “the plan.”
So we live well-planned lives and whither away, having won a victory over risk by choosing not to roll some dice. For generations, we puritanical planners could justly scoff at the reckless and child-like that neither put up wheat nor barely but ate their seed corn. Now we save our seed corn endlessly, waiting for a guarantee of a perfect season before we choose to plant.
What we are seeing is the collision of a culture with a new reality in which it did not evolve. In the previous world of many uncertainties, our work ethic and bourgeois sensibilities helped us cope by emphasizing the need to carefully plan those few things over which we did have control. This allowed us to triumph in spite of Malthus and his very real fears. But now we have control over life’s greatest risk, children, and we have chosen to minimize that risk. And so we have chosen to minimize our continued existence.
No creature or culture has ever successfully evolved childlessness. Our culture will be no exception. It will die out, or a variant of it will occur that is better adapted to the new challenge of birth control. And from an evolutionary perspective chronic contraception is a challenge more threatening than any disease or famine. But the new voluntary sterility is a challenge with an obvious solution.
Average birth rates are just that: an average. Even in a society with a severely unhealthy average such as 1.5 children per generation, there is a considerable spread involved from those that choose to have no children to those that choose to have three or four or even more. Interestingly, there is a correlation between the number of siblings a person has and what she regards as an “ideal” family size.
The correlation is not absolute, but it is there: children from large families want larger families than those from small families. The seeds for a societal shift to a model that desires children as part of the plan have already been sown. Identifying who these pioneers of voluntary reproduction are will be fascinating — not just in America, but in Europe and modernized Asia as well. Lost in the statistical noise of the majority culture of planned childlessness are a myriad of small groups that, quite simply, are the future, if any, of the Western world.
Most everyone and everything you see around you today, all that we take so seriously, doesn’t matter.
The celebrities and advertising, the politics and news media, the technology and hoopla will all pass away. And all that will remain will be a strange juxtaposition of the progeny of those that did not plan much at all, and those that planned to have multiple children.
1 I do not claim they are unique in this, only that they are unusually dedicated to the concept, and that this dedication has led to a novel demographic pitfall.