The US fertility rate is at a record low. Researchers are quick to look to the economy as explanation yet the falling rate has persisted despite the recovery. New research reveals the real reason young people today are remaining childless: they don’t want kids.
A survey of 1,858 men and women aged 20 to 45 published in the New York Times (paywall) reveals that the biggest factor in their decision not to have children is a desire for more leisure time. Not finding a partner and the expense of childcare were slightly more significant factors than simply “no desire for children.”
This is a truth that’s been hard for America, with its disposition toward the “traditional family,” to swallow. Women—and men—without children are seen as unnatural, unlikable, and selfish. In 2015, Sophie Gilbert wrote in the Atlantic about a collection of essays titled, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: ”While the association appears to be so deeply embedded in the collective psyche that it’d take dynamite to shift it, if the book reveals anything, it’s that there’s an awful lot more to not wanting children than the impulse to put oneself first.” Though wanting “leisure time,” is likely much more nuanced and related to the ability to exercise choice and freedom, the survey’s results are unlikely to shake the conflation of childlessness to selfishness.
What’s more, not wanting your own children doesn’t mean that you’re fundamentally ungiving. Studies show that people without children devote more time to volunteering (paywall). And, they have loving relationships with other people’s kids, which is beneficial to both parties.
This week, Glynnis MacNicol published an essay in the New York Times (paywall) titled, “I’m in my 40s, Child-Free and Happy. Why Won’t Anyone Believe Me?” In it, she details the cringeworthy story of a dinner with friends at which a famous writer declared, “Glynnis MacNicol, you have a terrible life!” Despite her protests, and assertion that she has meaningful relationships, fulfilling work, and the ability to travel and live abroad—he (and others she encounters) don’t believe her.
She sums up best her own encounters and the collective American psyche: “We are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of women on their own, navigating their own lives, let alone liking it.” So we continue looking for other reasons of why women aren’t having kids until we find an answer that’s more palatable to our American values.