Domestic Affairs

Children: Reconsidering the Default Option

When American households first entered lockdown in spring of 2020, some speculated that privacy, boredom and a finite collection of tolerable Netflix shows were the ideal conditions for babymaking. Nine months later, the data told a different story; December, January and February together showed an 8% decline relative to numbers from the same three-month span a year earlier. 

As the early whirlwind of pandemic productivity lost momentum and Instagram decluttered from the months of freshly baked loaves of banana bread and quarantine fitness challenges, Americans were forced to confront the staggering death toll and an economy in freefall. The U.S. alone has seen over 600,000 deaths and in April 2020, the unemployment rate reached 14.8% — the highest rate observed since data collection by the Congressional Research Service began in 1948. 

Data spanning centuries support a positive correlation between high birth rates and economic growth — the High Middle Ages saw the rise of feudalism and dramatic swells in populations across Europe. A more modern example can be found in the 9% birth rate decrease in the five years following the Great Recession. Moreover, longitudinal surveys showing that marital births in coal producing areas mirrored earning changes associated with the coal boom and bust during the 1970s and1980s. In the present day, after 2020 saw the U.S. economy shrink by the largest amount in 74 years, analysts now predict up to 500,000 fewer births in the U.S. in 2021.

While the link between recession and birth rate is a global pattern, the effects seem particularly pronounced in the U.S. An alarming drop in birth rates predates the pandemic and demographers postulate international discrepancies are damning indictments of preexisting structural problems in the nation. Since the early 1960s, global fertility rates have decreased globally by about half and humanity will soon be a lot smaller and older than it is today.

Declining fertility rates are not necessarily bad. At its best, the trends reflect better educational and career opportunities for women, increased acceptance of the choice to be childfree and higher standards of living. However, while liberalizing forces are at play, the pandemic drop off more likely reflects the inhospitable circumstances of economic instability, the failure of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible, and a collective climate change induced nihilism. 

Prior to the pandemic, a review published in the “European Journal of Population” examined motivations behind the decision to have children when faced with inhibitive economic costs. Their research offered three main conclusions 1) biological predispositions, 2) environment and social coercion and 3) rational choice. While genes that make sex and parenthood pleasurable remain unaffected by the pandemic, the same cannot be said for the latter themes. 

Regarding the social coercive factors at play, the pandemic induced a rapid cultural transition that triggered both societal and individual re-evaluations of what makes for a full and happy life. Among these changes, hostile judgement of the childfree eroded as parents became more candid about the hardships of raising children. In lieu of prior shame, feelings of relief among the childless have become more widely tolerated. In an essay series called “Childfree”, The Guardian explores the diverse array of motivations behind that decision — financial instability, the climate crisis, career ambitions, and contentment as a single individual. 

The rationality of having a child was similarly altered by the pandemic; the former avenues to being a working parent (i.e. costly childcare options) were made impossible by social distancing measures. For heterosexual couples, the sexist division of labor was aggravated as mothers stepped in to disproportionally shoulder the burden of childcare. Now, as the world lurches towards recovery, the WEF reports that the pandemic has pushed back gender parity by a generation. Moreover, as the pandemic made the current environment look too unsafe and the future too uncertain, many adults grappled with the realization that social, educational and medical structures are simply not working.

Socioeconomic factors remain the dominant drivers of falling birthrates in the U.S. and yet the conversation around reproduction increasingly overlaps with the urgency of the climate crisis. A 2019 poll reported that almost 38% of Americans aged 18 to 29 believe that couples should consider climate change when deciding to have children, with many citing concerns over overpopulation despite repeated affirmations from scientists and sociologists alike that the climate crisis results from inequalities rather than overpopulation. Moreover, placing blame on the ecological carrying capacity of human population growth inadvertently carries eugenicist undertones and displaces blame from a system that prioritizes profits over social and ecological wellbeing. 

Yet, while individual responsibility to remain childless in order to offset emissions is often discounted, a study conducted by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson on 901 adults around the world aged 27 to 60 found that many young, climate-conscious people connected climate change to their reproductive choices. “The fears about the carbon footprint of having kids tended to be abstract and dry,” says Schneider-Mayerson, “but anxiety about children being able to lead a good life in a climate-changed future is extremely emotional and deep.” This, combined with the aforementioned review of why people choose to have children, suggests that we should expect further advances in how the ongoing ecological crisis plays out in people’s intimate lives.

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