Is the fear of having children bringing the West to the brink of extinction?

We are living at a time when a large segment of the world — particularly societies in Europe, North America and Asia — no longer views having children as something desirable or worthwhile. Whereas before, remaining childless was something people often felt shame over, even if it was through no choice of their own, we are now living at a unique historic moment in which many people proudly broadcast the fact that they have no children as something to celebrate or be proud of.

Of course, there are many people in between, who want to have children, but can’t, for biological reasons, or who want to have children, but just feel too economically squeezed to make it work. But the overall pattern is clear: the more having children becomes undesirable or becomes viewed as “impractical”, the more we are seeing a population implosion.

Many societies across the globe are seeing their average birth rates dip well below population replacement level. This 2021 “Our World in Data” map (based on World Population Prospects data published by the Population division of the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs) indicates that outside of Africa, there is a relatively small handful of countries that continue to have birth rates above replacement level — and in case you’re curious, none of those countries are in Europe or North America, nor do they include Russia, China, Japan, or India.

This turn of events raises some very serious existential and pragmatic questions, questions of the sort that our current political and media system may not be sufficiently mature to grapple with. First, why is having children viewed so negatively that many people either avoid it or put it off as long as possible? Second, why do people present not having children as if it had some special merit, or was something to be celebrated? Third, what does the decline in births mean for the future of Western societies and cultures?

Why is having children viewed so negatively?

Let’s begin with the negativity surrounding pregnancy and child-rearing. As a second-time father, I can understand from seeing the pregnancy of my wife, that pregnancy is difficult, to put it politely. As a parent of two small children, I fully understand that rearing children and preparing them to face the world is incredibly demanding, and emotionally stressful at times.

But there are many things we do in life that are incredibly demanding and involve overcoming fears, coping with anxiety, and stretching ourselves beyond our previous limits, from professional sports to highly competitive jobs; yet, we see these demands as challenges, not turn-offs, because we perceive a reward in taking on such tasks, or view them as socially important.

Why not extend that logic to child-bearing and child-rearing? Why do we focus on the cost, stress, anxiety, and other downsides of having children, while essentially discounting, or undercounting, the immense privilege and joy associated with the task of bringing new children into the world? Is it because we do not have good role models of happy and fulfilled parents?


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Or is it because we are so caught up with being in control of our lives that the mere thought of having a tiny person completely depending on us terrifies us? Or is it because many of us are just too attached to our material comforts and non-committal lifestyles to be open to the sacrifices that are demanded by parenting?

Why celebrate having a “child-free” life?

Whatever the reasons driving the decision not to have children, it is increasingly frequent across large tracts of the planet Earth. The decision in itself is more or less logical, once you assume that people are “playing it safe”, or feel squeezed economically, or just prefer a more comfortable life.

What may seem a little puzzling is why people speak cheerfully and proudly about having a “child-free” life, almost as if there were some merit to it. Take the following tweet, for example, by a local politician in Ireland: “This 41-year-old, unmarried, child-free woman had the best night of her life at Taylor Swift last night.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should return to the times when people had to feel a profound sense of guilt because they didn’t have children, whether by choice or on account of infertility. But there is surely something strange about suggesting that leading a “child-free” existence is something we should be proud of, or something we should aspire to.

Unless a sufficient number of children from a society have children, that society dwindles and self-destructs. The task of rearing children is one of the single greatest contributions someone can make to their society. People don’t typically go around saying, "I’m happily leading a Nobel-free life,” or “I’m happily job-free,” because while a person’s dignity and worth do not depend on having a Nobel prize or being employed, people don’t generally aspire to be “Nobel-free” or “job-free”. Why, then, should anyone aspire to be “child-free”?

What does the declining birth rate mean for the future of Western societies and cultures?

Finally, what does the decline in births mean for the future of Western societies and cultures? In the short and medium term, it necessarily creates labour shortages, which damage economic efficiency and prosperity. It also makes the traditional Western model of the welfare state unworkable, since the Western welfare state requires worker contributions to exceed the costs of welfare payouts, which become crippling in an ageing population with sky-rocketing healthcare bills.

From a purely demographic point of view, you could replenish dying populations with young people from Africa, Afghanistan, Venezuela, or Kazhakstan, since those societies have sustainable fertility rates. But the idea that every labour shortfall, including highly specialised labour, will be met by immigrants without a painful and costly transitional period, seems naive.

In addition, even if you could eventually meet your labour shortages with skilled-up migrants, this does not take away from the fact that people immersed in certain cultures and ways of life, including Western cultures and ways of life, are essentially not reproducing their way of life at a sufficient pace to avoid cultural extinction.

If those of us fortunate enough to live in free and economically advanced societies value our own culture and way of life; if we think that the individual liberties we often take for granted, and the store of knowledge and customs we have built up over many generations, are something worth passing on, then the fact that this particular culture is terminally ill, and heading toward its own demise, should be a cause of concern to us.

If we think there is some other culture waiting in the wings to replace it, one that is just as good, if not better, then we might not see our own cultural demise as a big deal. We might even see it as an opportunity. But it is unclear to me that there is a different culture waiting in the wings to help us renew our economic prosperity and preserve values like personal freedom, rule of law, tolerance and openness that have defined Western societies for generations.

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David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer of political philosophy at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain.

This article has been republished from David Thunder’s Substack, The Freedom Blog.

Image credit: Pexels


Showing 11 reactions

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  • Philip Anderson
    commented 2024-07-12 11:05:19 +1000
    Roll on the cloning technology so that I can propagate my DNA. I am joking.
    My children only got half of my genes. My daughters complain that they got my ugly feet. They got my wife’s brown eyes and missed out on my pretty blues.
    MY grandchildren only get a quarter of my genes etc.
    Having children is not about propagating genes… it’s about raising children to the greater glory of God’s kingdom.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-07-10 08:29:26 +1000
    Corwin, if you really want to improve society, you would work on doing so yourself. You wouldn’t bring new people into society just to make it better. That’s forcing an unfair and unreasonable expectation on them.

    Besides, there are many ways to contribute to society without having children. And if you’re spending all of your time raising children, that’s time you can’t spend housing the homeless, adopting children who are already here and need help. You can’t even do something as simple as plant trees because children take so much time to raise and nurture.
  • mrscracker
    “Selfish” is thinking society should end with you. But if Mr. Bunyan practices what he preaches, we need not worry; Society will last longer than he does."
    I don’t know if that outlook is selfish, but it’s surely must be lonely.
  • John Sampson
    commented 2024-07-10 05:56:47 +1000
    In my youth the survivors of a coming nuclear war were going to die miserably in a nuclear winter. Today we or our children are going to die miserably in a climate catastrophe. We Anglo-Saxons are taught to hate ourselves and our heritage. To have children needs some sort of optimism. Where, in prevailing worldviews, or in yours, is there hope for the future? The remarkable thing is that people have children anyway.
  • corwin king
    commented 2024-07-10 04:03:19 +1000
    Methinks “Paul Bunyan” misses the point in saying there is “nothing more selfish or narcissistic than. wanting to propagate one’s own DNA.” People have children not only to replicate themselves, but to continue (and hopefully improve) human society.

    Unless you’re a misanthrope, that’s a noble ambition. “Selfish” is thinking society should end with you. But if Mr. Bunyan practices what he preaches, we need not worry; Society will last longer than he does.
  • Patrick Obrien
    commented 2024-07-10 02:59:01 +1000
    If a Taylor Swift concert is a big thrill when you are 41, you need a life.
  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-07-09 22:27:00 +1000
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-07-09 13:31:30 +1000
    Why do people find pride in being childfree? Probably because society forces images of parenthood upon them. They’re being lied to about it every day, in the media, in advertising, and by their friends, family and neighbors. They are being told that having children will make life better and strengthen their relationships. Which is not alwatys the case – having children (or even adopting) is not something that should be done without a lot of consideration.

    As for people being proud of procreating? I don’t see why anyone should be proud of procreating. You carried a baby to term. You didn’t cure cancer or eliminate world hunger. It’s not something to be proud of.

    In fact, I can think of nothing more selfish or narcissistic than wanting to propagate one’s own DNA.
  • Maryse Usher
    commented 2024-07-04 13:07:48 +1000
    I attended an event last week which was teeming with families of married Mum and Dad and – just looking around at these clusters near me – their seven children. Beautifully behaved kids, happy, youthful parents … maybe I was dreaming. Hopefully they inspire other young people to follow their example.
  • mrscracker
    When a “child free” woman is no longer 41 but age 61, things may look less sparkly.
  • David Thunder
    published this page in The Latest 2024-07-03 20:13:22 +1000