The last generation

I have been reading quite a bit lately about a book called What to Expect When No One Is Expecting about the coming demographic collapse and why the fact that since the end of the much-hyped baby-boom more than forty years ago fertility has taken a nosedive. Now, I freely admit that I haven’t read the book, in fact I have no intention of reading it either, but I have gone over the list of contributing factors (contraception, abortion, women daring to work and have interests of their own, and the costs involved in bringing up a single little bundle of snot)… and the truth is that I have found it highly entertaining.

Sorry, I know I should be taking this seriously, and I agree that the whole cost thing probably does play a role, but I suspect that even there the book is coming at it from a different angle. Anyway, the thing is that most of the commentaries I’ve encountered (okay, let’s be honest, what I’ve read are mostly criticisms) focus primarily either on explaining why the data is flawed and the demographic decline is not really such a big deal, or on explaining why arguing that women should just shut up, shelve their ambitions, and go back to making babies is wrong. As a college educated, middle-class woman with no kids I would like to offer my own perspective (and I must say that this list in unlikely to make anyone happy):

-I don’t like the world our generation has inherited, and it is not a world in which I would want my kids to live.

-This one ties neatly into the one I mentioned above, though in a way it also predates it: up until some seventy years ago there was the certainty of a future. There may have been a question as to whether the future was going to be better or worse than the present, but there was going to be a future, and for the most part things were looking up. Now that is no longer the case. In fact what we have are a couple of generations that have grown up in a world in which movies and books portraying ever more dystopian scenarios are the norm (and in which quite a few of those dystopian scenarios seem to be on the brink of jumping from fiction to fact). If you look at the dates, you will probably realize that the parents of the baby-boom generation were also the last ones to grow up with those certainties, the last ones who didn’t get to experience the joy of cowering under their school desks in preparation for a nuclear Armageddon.

-We don’t seem to realize how much the world we live in, and the status of children in it, has changed in the last hundred years or so (my mom used to joke that she never got the drumsticks of the chicken because when she was little her father got first pickings, then her mother, then the oldest one of her brothers and down the line they went, but by the time I came along asking the children what part they wanted first had become the norm). In other words, in the past children were seen, if not as a resource, at least not as a major financial burden. In fact a few decades ago it was still fairly common for children to have to earn their keep, at least to a certain extent (my mom and her siblings, for instance, were expected to lend a hand in the family shop when necessary, and to do it gracefully). Needless to say that that is no longer the case, and what are deemed to be the kids ‘needs’ are getting more outrageous each year.

-While raising kids has become more and more demanding because of the changing expectations, the pay-off has all but been taken off the table. Let me be blunt about that: up until a  couple of generations ago there was a selfish aspect to parenting that made the sacrifices (which were nowhere near as onerous as they are now) well worth it. So what was this selfish aspect to parenting? It was a rather simple one, and it had to do with the fact that in the past there was a tacit agreement between the generations that had been in place since anyone could remember: I take care of you while you are little, you will look after me in my old age. With a fairly reliable safety net in place to take the slack, and with an ever growing number of adult children (including quite a few of those college educated, middle-class ones) failing to fulfill their end of the bargain and putting their parents into nursing homes (and expecting their real or hypothetical children to do the same to them when the time comes), the incentive to make the sacrifices required to raise a child is no longer there.

-And finally one that doesn’t reflect so nicely on me and my generation, but I’m trying to be honest here: unlike our parents, we have grown up in a world of ‘me’, and we like it just fine. Having a kid means giving up the world of ‘me’ for the world of ‘you’.

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