Childlessness in Europe: Contexts, Causes, and Consequences
Michaela Kreyenfeld and Dirk Konietzka, eds.
SpringerOpen, 2017; 370 pages, open access eBook
In his brilliant 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley anticipated a future in which the word mother has become an “obscenity,” “a pornographic impropriety.” If Huxley were alive today, he would find compelling evidence in this new collection of sociological analyses of childlessness in Europe and the United States (included presumably as European in origin) that his fictive vision of an anti-maternal future has been vindicated.
Of course, the 30 scholars who here collaborate see motherhood as a persistent biological reality when they look at the United States and six representative European nations (Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) up close and 22 other European countries in statistical profile. Most women in these 29 Western countries still give birth to at least one child. But the very title of this new volume indicates the problematic status of today: “Since the mid-twentieth century,” observe the editors, “many western European countries have seen radical changes in demographic behavior, including increasing shares of permanently childless women and men.”
To be sure, when considered simply as a demographic pattern, the recent elevation of childlessness in Europe and the United States is hardly unprecedented. Quite high compared to what social scientists observed during the post-war Baby Boom, current levels of childlessness now stand at around 20 percent of the female populations in Austria, Germany, and Sweden and about the same in Southern Europe. Levels are somewhat lower in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, and in the United States. But among women born in the first half of the twentieth century, 25 percent and even 30 percent of women in many European countries were childless—largely because of the Great Depression and the slaughter of millions of potential fathers in twentieth-century warfare.
Large families no longer compensate
The sharp rise in European and American childlessness in recent decades reflects the effects of neither economic catastrophe nor wartime carnage. What is more, during earlier periods of relatively high childlessness, overall fertility remained above replacement level because of what Kreyenfeld and Konietzka call “fertility behavior [that was] relatively polarized, with significant shares of people either remaining childless or having a large family.” This fertility polarization is now gone—because the large families are gone. Though the authors of this volume give it scant attention, at least in Western Europe demographers have detected a correlation—not especially strong, but still statistically significant—between high levels of childlessness and lower overall fertility rates. In some areas, as Austrian demographer Tomáš Sobatka notes, the data indicate “a rapid spread of one-child families.” Unfortunately, the overall depression of fertility levels in Europe and the United States—what some have called a “birth dearth” or “baby bust”—receives virtually no direct attention here.
A clash of perspectives
Even in their narrow focus on childlessness, Kreyenfeld and Konietzka acknowledge a clash of perspectives. On the one hand, the editors see some analysts interpreting “increasing childlessness as an outgrowth of an individualistic and ego-centric society” leading inevitably to “the rapid aging of the population and . . . the looming decay of social-security systems.” But they also see “commentators on the other side of the debate . . . call[ing] for a ‘childfree lifestyle’ and . . . ‘recommend[ing] bypassing parenthood.’” Linking this second group of commentators with “a feminist perspective,” the editors explain that from this perspective “the decision to remain childless” counts as “an expression of a self-determined life” in contrast to the kind of life women experienced “in previous generations [when] a woman’s life had been constructed around the roles of wife and mother.” From this perspective, “the ability of current generations to ‘choose’ whether to have children seems to be an achievement of post-modern life conditions.”
Seeming to position themselves above the fray, Kreyenfeld and Konietzka suggest that the volume they have assembled offers “scholarly research . . . provid[ing] a more neutral and fact-based assessment of the evolution and consequences of childlessness in contemporary societies.” But knowledgeable readers will regard this promise of neutral and fact-based analyses skeptically. Anyone who has spent much time in the twenty-first-century world of academe will know something of the ideological bias making social and religious conservatism on family issues a rare presence.
Market forces, and a shift in values
Sobotka understands just how rare influences supportive of motherhood have become, frankly remarking, “Most of the social, economic, and cultural trends of the last 45 years appear to steer women away from having children.” Some of these forces have been unleashed by consumer capitalism: “A single individual unhindered by family commitments is the winner in the race for the greatest career and material success,” Sobotka remarks, underscoring his point by quoting Ulrich Beck’s assertion that “the ultimate market society is a childless society.”
But Sobotka acknowledges that more than economics has been driving the retreat from child-bearing when he notes “the broad-based shift in values related to reproduction and marriage and the related changes in partnership behavior.” Sobotka does link this shift with “the second demographic transition”—but does not so much as mention that this second demographic transition ushered in an era of sub-replacement fertility in the late twentieth century. His colleagues are generally even less curious than he about the “cultural changes” that drove this transition.
Readers will glimpse the role of the academy in driving childlessness in the conclusion of three French demographers, who find that “highly educated women . . . are . . . more likely than less educated women to be childless.” In Austria, the editors report, “among the highly educated social scientists [precisely the kind of individuals writing this volume] . . . childlessness is almost 40%.” Of course, a woman with a deep commitment to academic achievement will likely view child-bearing as a detour. Such a woman may view even marriage as an unwelcome entanglement, a Swedish team of researchers thus adducing evidence that “highly educated women are . . . less likely to marry than less educated women.” What is more, among the highly educated women who join the professoriate, a galvanized cadre school their students in the belief that “marriage oppresses women” and in the notion that childlessness constitutes “a mode of ultimate feminism.”
Regardless of the country in view, the analysts here find what sociologist Ann Berrington finds in the United Kingdom: “very few individuals report that they wish to remain childless.” But a trip through the university can so focus the minds of young women on securing a credential and then consolidating a career that they delay family commitments. Limning a pattern paralleled in other countries, Berrington concludes that “as more young adult women spend extended periods in education or pursuing career opportunities . . . they may repeatedly decide to postpone childbearing until it is ‘too late.’”
Redefining ‘too late’: the role of technology
The widespread availability in Europe and the United States of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART)—covered in two chapters here—has redefined “too late.” A candid German sociologist complains, however, that “the success rates of [ART] fertility treatments tend to be overstated, while the emotional strain . . . is often understated.” In any case, it is neither ART’s low success rate nor its high degree of accompanying emotional strain that most arouses the concern of the editors.
Instead, the editors reserve their anguish for the perceived lack of “social justice” in nations that deny ART to cohabiting couples, same-sex couples, and singles, so that only the rich among these groups can evade the restrictions by “crossing the border and seeking out ART in more liberal countries.” The editors also avert their eyes from the real social injustice ART visits upon the desperately impoverished third-world women exploited—virtually enslaved—by wealthy Europeans and Americans who rent their wombs, thus giving the modern world a form of child-making even more dehumanizing than the factory-reproduction Huxley depicts in his novel.
The difference religious commitment makes
Alone among the contributors, a Swiss-Austrian duo of researchers bring into view the profound difference religious commitment makes for childbearing. These two scholars survey evidence showing that compared to the religiously unaffiliated, the religiously committed are more likely “to believe that having children offers benefits such as joy and satisfaction, partnership consolidation, and continuation of the family line.” It is “not surprising” to these researchers that “religiosity has an impact on fertility outcomes”: “the childless rate of the non-religious is about double that of Catholics and Protestants in Switzerland.”
The Swiss and Austrian researchers further point out that among Muslims in their two countries “almost all marry, and within marriage childlessness is rare, probably around the biological minimum.”
Academic researchers in other countries would see the same pattern if they looked for it. They do not. Explaining how childlessness has surged in the United States, Tomas Frejka enumerates 15 separate reasons for the phenomenon. Not one touches on religion. Modern academia’s antipathy to religion seeps through the editors’ remark that “previous generations were pressed into parenthood by the influence of social norms and religious doctrines and by the lack of efficient birth control.”
A thoroughly secular solution
To the degree that they do consider it a problem that millions of young women unintentionally drift into childlessness, the authors of this new volume offer a thoroughly secular solution that fits all too smoothly into Huxley’s anti-maternal dystopia. See, for example, German childcare policies intended “to facilitate the reconciliation of work and family life and the re-entry of mothers into employment as early as possible after childbirth, and thus to make it easier for young adults to pursue an employment career without having to forgo parenthood.”
Other contributors repeatedly endorse the doublethink logic that would save motherhood by abolishing it, replacing mothers with bureaucratically administered surrogates. Forget about policies that would allow mothers to stay at home to care for their children—policies such as those once advocated by labor unions seeking a family wage for an employed husband-father. This academic elite may—until ART becomes more advanced—allow children to be born to their natural mothers, but it is intent on consigning the rearing of these children to state-licensed hirelings.
We do not need Huxley to tell us—though he surely would—that when scholars advance such proposals, it can only mean that the word mother now survives as a mere marker for a biological status, while real in-home, nurturing motherhood has become a “pornographic impropriety,” at least among the intellectual elite who govern our universities and publish volumes such as this one.
Bryce J. Christensen is Senior Editor of The Natural Family, A Journal of Public Policy, published by The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society. Republished with permission.