Culture

Our Childless, Childish Culture

Britain’s Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in London, England, July 14, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
What’s wrong with us?

When a person doesn’t want children, sometimes he’ll gravitate toward a political view justifying that desire. Rousseau, for instance, who abandoned each of his five children at an orphanage as soon as they were born, argued in The Social Contract that the state owes more to the child than does the family. More recently, Prince Harry of the British royal family told Vogue that he and his wife, Meghan Markle, the guest editor for Vogue’s special edition, would be having a “maximum” of two children on account of — well — climate change.

Never mind that Markle is nearly 40 — it’s the rising sea levels they’re thinking of!

That this is disingenuous is obvious, and also unsurprising. After all, don’t most people attempt to organize their beliefs around their lifestyles (as opposed to the other way around)? And isn’t that because most people — notwithstanding the many opportunities for redemption — are rather thoughtless and selfish? Rousseau argued otherwise, naturally. But at any rate, I digress. Why are we — people of child-bearing age — so reluctant to have children?

It’s a pertinent question. The United States’ birth rate fell for a fourth consecutive year in 2018, marking the lowest number of live births in 32 years. And, according to government statistics, the birth rate in England and Wales has just hit its lowest level since records began. The U.K.’s Office for National Statistics found that there were 657,076 live births in England and Wales last year, which is a fall of 3.2 percent from the previous year and 10 percent since 2012.

Ann Berrington, a professor in demography and social statistics at the University of Southampton, tells the Guardian that this is partly due to younger generations’ “changing aspirations,” the increased access to contraception, the raising of the school-leaving age to 18, as well as new pressures facing twenty- and thirtysomethings, such as the lack of affordable housing. All of this is plausible. But if Ms. Berrington were to spend an evening eavesdropping at a Manhattan bar, she might cynically add the following: the embitterment of young women who have been taught to despise masculine men (whom they evidently still desire); the psychological prolongation of male adolescence, also known as Peter Pan syndrome; screens and emojis over love letters and flowers; and a general breakdown in communication between the sexes owing — largely — to a failure to acknowledge that the sexes are, in fact, quite different.

If she wanted to, Ms. Berrington could also add climate change, though that’s more like a description of the problem than it is a plausible cause. Climate change is as useful a proxy as any for this strange and paralyzing anxiety that is preventing us from getting on with the business of living and dying — destroying the wisdom of the past, stealing the joys of the present, and spreading imaginings so dark that many of us would rather forswear sex, marriage, babies (the whole lot!).

Despite “the easing of taboos” and “the rise of hookup apps,” some are calling this phenomenon a sexual recession. There’s no easy explanation. Consider, by contrast, that the post-war baby boom was driven by people who had endured far more immediate and tangible threats to their existence than we do now. So, what’s wrong with us?

The year after I graduated from college and was teaching at a high school in Glasgow, Scotland, I was given a copy of Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. Now, as I flick through the satirically titled chapter headings — “Never Leave Children to Themselves,” “Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Clichés,” “Cast Aspersions upon the Heroic and Patriotic,” “Reduce All Talk of Love to Narcissism and Sex,” “Level Distinctions between Man and Woman,” “Deny the Transcendent” — I think it reads like an instruction manual for the progressive, state-sponsored curriculum I was expected to implement. (A curriculum that, incidentally, is making the country illiterate.) I now wonder whether the people who invented this curriculum actually had children.

The same thought occurs to me vis-à-vis this increasingly out-of-hand gender-identity fad. Who knows what’s best for kids: parents or childless activists? This ought not to be a difficult question. Recently at a library in England, for instance, an adult-male drag queen was videoed teaching small children how to “twerk” — which is a sexually provocative, hip-thrusting dance made famous by Miley Cyrus in a fit of derangement. A generous interpretation of this episode is that the adult performer in question did not realize how inappropriate he was being because he does not know or understand children. But this is naïve. Last week, after Mario Lopez, the incoming Access Hollywood co-host and father of three, told the conservative activist Candace Owens that the idea that a three-year-old could chose his gender was “sort of alarming” and urged parents to “be the adult in the situation,” he was attacked as a bigot and actually apologized.

Our childless culture is — paradoxically — a childish one.

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