Modern populations keep shrinking: how child-free people transform society

Two years back, a provocative claim made rounds throughout the media: single women are happier than those who marry. Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics, talked about his book Happy Ever After, where he demonstrated why the “healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children”. He cited a study that showed that yes, men do benefit from getting married. They settle down, earn more, and even live a little longer, but the same is not true for women. “You see a single woman of 40, who has never had children – ‘Bless, that’s a shame, isn’t it? Maybe one day you’ll meet the right guy and that’ll change.’ No, maybe she’ll meet the wrong guy and that’ll change. Maybe she’ll meet a guy who makes her less happy and healthy, and die sooner,” Dolan said. That’s just how society is wired: it’s difficult to imagine that child-free people, especially women, could be happier.

Obviously, it’s just one study that doesn’t apply to everyone. But Dolan does have a point. Peer pressure and wanting to avoid being an “outsider” can push people towards parenthood, which perhaps isn’t the best motivation.

But despite the judgment, many modern countries are shook by how many women – and not only women, of course – have no interest in pursuing a “traditional” family. A new study conducted in the US shows that around ¼ people consider themselves child-free. That means they never had kids and never want to, unlike childless people who can’t have children despite wanting to. And that’s an immense threat to the coveted growth economy.

Are child-free people happier? 

So who are all of these people? And how come they don’t want to build a family? We haven’t had much targeted data on personalities, lifestyles, and satisfaction levels of people who identify as child-free, be it men or women. And so researchers from Michigan State University decided to look into it in their home state. 

Long story short: they couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The group doesn’t have any distinctly different personality traits, and they “also found that these child-free people are just as satisfied with their lives as parents, childless people, or people who plan to have kids,” the researcher Jennifer Neal said for Gizmodo.

The research only showed minor differences in personality traits between child-free individuals and others. For example, they were slightly more liberal than parents. One of the findings was rather sad: “those who have or want(ed) children felt substantially less warm toward child-free individuals than child-free individuals felt toward each other”.

Clearly, child-free individuals are still viewed as outsiders, despite their rising numbers. 

Bad news for the budgets

The future predictions are clear: the population is about to shrink dramatically, especially in more developed parts of the world. 

Now imagine that some EU countries, such as Spain, Latvia or Slovakia will likely see their populations reduce by more than half by 2100 (!). Globally, we will reach a peak in 2064 at about 9.7 billion people. Subsequently, the decline starts, getting back to 8.8 billion in 2100. 

When women become more empowered and educated, they become less interested in raising a big family. On top of that, many people are concerned about the funds needed to provide for the kids. And while our planet certainly doesn’t need more people, politicians responsible for government budgets are worried. Who will pay for all the retirement pensions? And so the countries are facing a dilemma that will reshape society as we know it today. 

Some struggling countries have launched efforts to boost birth rates, but so far can’t conclusively claim victory. South Korea, for example, famously has the lowest birth rate globally. Looks like government publishing guidelines on how pregnant women need to cook, clean, and stay attractive didn’t help. Poland’s efforts to throw money at the problem don’t seem to work either. And Hungary’s plan to support young families didn’t produce results, at least not yet.

Hungary’s PM, Viktor Orbán, who was recently named Europe’s first press freedom predator, mentioned another solution during his press conference: migration. But according to him, it’s an immense threat. Spreading fear, he claimed that “political forces in Europe want a replacement of population for ideological or other reasons”. Now that’s some way to reframe the need for taxpayer money. Yes, Hungary is really asking women to believe they’re saving the country from evil forces that secretly rule the world by having babies.

Can immigration save us?

In countries where fear and conspiracy theories aren’t the political program of the ruling party, immigration is an organized effort to tackle the demographic crisis. Germany has welcomed economic migrants since the 1950s and has been trying to integrate refugees as well. Such immigrants are mostly young and have jobs. They also have more children than the local population. But as DW pointed out, once they become educated, they also prefer having fewer kids, so the problem persists. 

And isn’t it ironic that while countries wonder what to do with policies regarding parenthood, immigration, and sustainable budgets, our planet doesn’t really need any more people? On the contrary. So perhaps this isn’t an inevitable demographic “crisis”, but a devastating economic one in the making. At one point, paying people who don’t want children won’t be enough.

The reality is that the modern world will be less crowded, and as time goes by, probably even Earth. Societies will have to adjust how they function – and maybe that’s what needs to happen.

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