There is nothing like that moment when you cradle a friend’s newborn baby, gaze into its helpless eyes and realise, with a pang, that you would rather be almost anywhere else.
There are some hardy dissidents in this, the Age of the Child. “Ours is a culture not of ancestor worship but of descendant worship,” wrote the MP Rory Stewart, taking his career into his hands, last year. “Our opium is our children.” Which makes voluntary childlessness something like our hemlock. Over the past half-century, society has come to accommodate every human type and version of the good life but one. Gay rights proliferated, women were ushered into the workplace, racial discrimination was outlawed. We abased ourselves to “communities” and “faith groups” touting shopping lists of sensitivities, privileges and special dispensations.
We are no longer citizens, sporting just one indivisible identity. We have become our genders, pigmentations, sexual leanings, lifestyle choices and credal enthusiasms, and our expanding notion of rights is always taking in new minorities: transgender people, the depressed, the merely offended.
There is one exception to all this mutual reassurance. The tent of identity politics was never pitched wide enough to cover people who forswear parenthood. There is no childfree “community”, lobby or discourse to speak of. The childless are political unpersons – not persecuted but not noticed either. Politicians on the prowl for female voters invariably dangle pro-natalist policies, even though a fifth of British women have not given birth by the age of 45. The welfare state is disproportionately a resource for parents. Child benefit, subsidised childcare and the like constitute a prodigious transfer of money from non-parents to parents. Every other redistribution – from rich to poor, native to immigrant, young to old, region to region – is viciously contested. It is the stuff of politics. But not this, the silent subvention.
Voluntary childlessness may be the one lifestyle of which we have actually become less tolerant. In the 1970s, Britons did not mind or even notice that their prime minister, Ted Heath, was both childless and unmarried. Could someone like that be elected now? In our time, successful politicians not only flaunt their broods but, in the instances of Tony Blair and David Cameron, add to them in office. Our attitude to the private arrangements of our leaders has mutated from indifference to vulgar curtain-twitching curiosity to an expectation that they will prove their fecundity to the pullulating masses.
In response, politicians simper and ingratiate. Cloying rhetoric about “hardworking families” and “mums ’n’ dads” – of “giving every child the best start in life”, an aspiration that does not even make sense in theory – is now the ambient noise of politics. A visitor from the past exposed to the public life of today might assume the franchise was withdrawn from people without children at some point in the 1990s, so little are they mentioned.
The childfree are short-changed by culture as much as by politics. The classic of the genre is About a Boy, Nick Hornby’s smarmy story about a childless roué who – of course – ends up undergoing an epiphany about the redemptive properties of fatherhood. Something similar happens in both versions of the film Alfie (tellingly, the later one, made in 2004, is more jeeringly censorious about the protagonist’s lifestyle than the earlier one, made in 1966).
In literary fiction, he who shuns family life is affectless and sometimes malevolent. Meursault, the titular outsider in Albert Camus’ existential novel, kills an Arab on a beach, ostensibly because he feels like it. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is just Jack the Ripper transferred to Wall Street. The foremost chroniclers of masculinity unmoored from hearth and home are Martin Amis and Michel Houellebecq, both conjurers of dark, reptilian dystopias. Without a nest to tend, even our louchest writers seem to be saying, nothing stands between a person and the moral abyss.
And that’s just the men, who are at least shown to be having a good time. Would that childfree women were so lucky in their cinematic or literary renderings, which range from the non-existent to the dowdily spinsterish. Perhaps the problem here is inherent to storytelling: a narrative needs tension and ultimately a twist. A happily childless person going on being happily childless won’t do. But it is a living reality for millions.
If childfree people win recognition anywhere, it is the market. “Dinks”, the grating commercial code for households with dual incomes and no kids, are too lucrative a bunch to ignore. For marketing men, they are next of kin to the “pink pound” and the bachelors whose ardour for bars, restaurants and assiduous grooming keeps much of the urban economy going. The historian Niall Ferguson took a mauling last year when he drew a causal link between John Maynard Keynes’s rumoured homosexuality and his economic counsel: only someone without heirs, he suggested, could be so insouciant about short-term borrowing to fend off a recession. The debt would be borne by strangers.
Although Ferguson withdrew his theory in a din of recrimination, it was not miles away from getting at a truth about the rational incentives that face childless people, gay or straight. To be childfree is to encounter what economists call a steep discount rate: money is worth more now than in the future. Pension provision aside, there is little reason to defer gratification. College fees, a nest egg, a house big enough for a playroom – there sure are a lot of things to not bother saving for.
This is why the procreating majority sometimes resents voluntary childlessness as an expression of decadence and self-regard. There are, of course, poor childfree couples, ascetic childfree couples, munificently philanthropic childfree couples. But the classic Childfree Couple – the one in people’s heads, the one gloss-published on magazine covers – always radiates a gilded narcissism. He is a banker, she is a barrister, their lifestyle is a king’s ransom of Nespresso machines, luxury holidays in adults-only resorts, stress-free nights on the town.
This picture of denatured affluence is grossly wide of the mark but it is worth asking ourselves what would be so bad about it if it were true. A conceptual challenge to which even the most liberal societies are not yet equal is accepting that, for a good number of us, this life – the material, temporal here and now – is enough, thank you very much. We accept that many people do not hunger for a connection to the transcendent through God but we struggle to understand people who do not seek transcendence through progeny either. We assume that everyone must want to subsume themselves into “something greater than ourselves”. But many of us do not. If our lives lack meaning as a consequence, it is not obvious why a life with no meaning is any less enjoyable than Churchill’s “pudding with no theme”.
And that is a colossal “if”. It is a dismal thing, life, if its highest meaning is its own perpetuation. The distinguishing thing about being human is that we have other reasons to live than the bleak circularity of continuing our species. We aim for more than the Darwinian minimum. Art, travel, cuisine, sport, sex that signifies nothing but its own pleasure, conversation with friends that works towards no practical purpose. We live for the ludic. It is easier to partake in most of these things without the constraints of family.
Any distaste we feel about this account of the good life is at odds with almost everything else we believe. After all, the whole point of the liberal journey that western societies have been on since the 1960s – and, really, since the Enlightenment – is the primacy of the individual. This is why we think discrimination on the basis of group identities – race, gender, nation, faith – is so insidious. It is perverse to invest in this idea of individualism for so long and then go all squeamish when it arrives at its logical conclusion: the childfree life, the ultimate expression of self-realisation above living for others. Deeply conservative societies can shun the decadently childfree and be consistent. Liberal societies – and faithless, consumerist Britain more than most – simply cannot. Respecting those who stand far from the breeding crowd is the unfinished business of liberalism.
If elective childlessness were inherently anti-social – and if it kept attracting more and more adherents as a lifestyle – then by definition our civic culture would be doomed. Society would become, to use the English title of Houellebecq’s most famous novel, atomised. But what if this malign judgment of childlessness is not just mistaken but the outright opposite of the truth? Stewart’s provocative case for a less child-centred society is that it may actually allow for more, not less, commitment to the public realm. “People who might once have been public figures, deeply invested in their work, are instead busy serving their children,” he wrote. “I’d prefer our opium to be the struggle to create a living civilisation.”
Parenthood is socialising and de-socialising at the same time. Yes, it plugs us into society’s institutional web – schools, hospitals, nurseries, parks – and gives us an emotional stake in the future. But it also means our familial duty supersedes our duty to anything or anyone outside. The ancient Greeks had the same worry, that reproduction dangerously narrowed a man’s obligations from serving the demos to serving only his family. It is why they saw a kind of civic virtue in homosexuality. For them, the social contract was between people living there and then – not, as Edmund Burke had it two millennia later, between successive generations.
The best case for parenthood is the most modest. It is no more “meaningful” or “social” than the alternative lifestyle but it can be more soothing. A happy family is a haven in an impersonal universe. In Don DeLillo’s career-making novel White Noise, Murray Suskind, a cynical college professor with a theory about everything, postulates that the family is the “cradle of the world’s misinformation”. We are “fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts” and so we form families to protect us by “sealing off the world”. In these cocoons, “small errors grow heads, fictions proliferate”. This is why the “strongest family units exist in the least developed societies”. It is not necessary to go all the way with the professor on this one to sense that there is something of the flight to safety in the nesting instinct. To form a family is to retreat into something.
Gary Becker, a real-life professor who won the Nobel Prize for economics and died in May, agreed that rational calculation informs family life as much as gloopy sentiment. Parents invest in their children, he suggested, to ensure that they are rich enough to look after them in their dotage. The cold logic that runs through his A Treatise on the Family upset many on its release but it is true that people often talk of their desire to start a family as though they were taking out an insurance policy: they hope it will give them “security”, “stability”, “someone to care for us when we get old”.
These are proper, natural desires. Nobody could be thought less of for possessing them. But they do give the lie to the notion that it is only childfree people who act out of pragmatism and a longing for comfort. In fact, those who disavow the nuclear family expose themselves to the world in all its sumptuous pleasures – and its harshest vicissitudes. It is a kind of enhanced reality. Going childfree is not a frigid denial of life, it is the ultimate immersion in life.
Janan Ganesh is an FT political columnist
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