As America’s fertility rate continues to fall, our cultural elite continues to cheer. Having fewer kids can allow us to reduce our carbon footprint. It can allow women to spend more time on their careers. It can mean we can spend more time and energy and money on each kid we do have. And for those who have remained “childless by choice,” having no kids can mean a greater chance to achieve some kind of self-actualization. By contrast, having more kids is something that we associate with religious zealots who don’t believe in birth control or people who are so poor that they don’t have access to it.
The economic problems caused by this demographic decline have been well documented—most recently by Jonathan Last in “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting.” But it is worth thinking about the kind of social vacuum that is being created. Saturday’s New York Times included a piece on some of those who have decided to forgo children.
As one aging childless artist, Francine Tint, explained, “People don’t have children to take care of them later on in life. . . . It’s not a reason to have children. They may come for a second on your deathbed, and that’s it. But of course, I worry.”
And perhaps she should. According to the article:
Ms. Tint’s situation is one that more and more elderly people will face over the next few decades as fewer women choose to have children. According to an August 2013 report from AARP, 11.6 percent of women ages 80 to 84 were childless in 2010. By 2030, the number will reach 16 percent. What’s more, in 2010, the caregiver support ratio was more than seven potential caregivers for every person over 80 years old. By 2030, that ratio is projected to decline to four to one. By 2050, it’s expected to fall to three to one.
Many of the people interviewed in the piece talk about how they plan to continue living in their apartments. One person says he plans to move to a kibbutz. But all of them are desperately trying to avoid some kind of eldercare facility.
The other day I interviewed a gerontologist who told me that the best predictor of how well a senior is cared for is not how many phone calls they receive per day or how much money they have. It’s the number of children they have. The decision by the boomer generation to have fewer children is going to have detrimental effects both for themselves and their caregivers a few years down the line. The team of people who can give them the help they need has grown smaller.