Tuesday, August 01, 2017

In defence of the childless

 
One by one, prejudices are tumbling in the West. People may harbour private suspicions that other people’s race, sex or sexuality makes them inferior—but to say so openly is utterly taboo. As most kinds of prejudiced talk become the preserve of anonymous social-media ranters, though, one old strain remains respectable. Just ask a childless person.

They are not subject to special taxes, as they were in Soviet Russia; nor are they driven from their homes, as they still are in some poor countries. The childless nonetheless come in for a lot of criticism. “Not to have children is a selfish choice,” Pope Francis has intoned, perhaps forgetting what the Bible says about motes and eyes. Others point out that non-parents are failing to produce the future workers who will pay for their pensions. Childless politicians are charged with not having a proper stake in society. “He talks to us about the future, but he doesn’t have children!” complained Jean-Marie Le Pen, co-founder of the National Front party, of Emmanuel Macron, who went on to win the French presidency. Similar attacks on Theresa May and Angela Merkel also failed—but researchers find that many voters quietly agree.

The charges against the childless should be thrown out, along with other social calumnies. In many rich countries, between 15% and 20% of women, and a slightly higher proportion of men, will not have children. The share is rising (see article). Some have medical problems; others do not meet the right person in time; still others decide they do not want them. Falling sperm counts in rich countries may play a role, too. Whatever the cause, the attacks on the childless are baseless.

If non-breeders are selfish, they have an odd way of showing it. They are more likely to set up charitable foundations than people with children, and much more likely to bequeath money to good causes. According to one American estimate, the mere fact of not having children raises the amount a person leaves to charity by a little over $10,000. The childless are thus a small but useful counterweight to the world’s parents, who perpetuate social immobility by passing on their social and economic advantages to their children.

The fact that so many senior politicians lack offspring ought to put to rest the notion that they do not care for society. Five of the G7 countries are led by childless men and women. Mr Macron, Mrs May, Mrs Merkel, Shinzo Abe and Paolo Gentiloni have their faults, but they are not notably less able than Justin Trudeau (who has three children) let alone Donald Trump (who has five). Their opportunities for nepotism are limited. And they spare their countries the spectacle of dynastic politics, which can lead to mediocrity. The BJP in India has a brighter future because Narendra Modi is childless; for proof, look at what has happened to the Congress party.

No kidding

The charge that childless people fail to pull their weight demographically is correct, but is less damning than it appears. Those who do not have children do put pressure on public pension systems. Faced with a deteriorating ratio of workers to pensioners, governments have to do unpopular things like making pensions less generous, as Japan has done, or accepting more immigrants, as some Western countries have done.

But to sustain public pensions in the long term, countries do not actually need more parents. What they need instead is more babies. It is possible to combine a high rate of childlessness with a high birth rate, provided people who become parents have more than one or two children. That was the pattern in many Western countries a century ago. Ireland, yet another country with a childless leader, still manages it today.

The childless also do everyone else a favour by creating wonderful works of art. British novelists have been especially likely to have no progeny: think of Hilary Mantel, P.G. Wodehouse and the Brontë sisters. In September Britain will put Jane Austen on its ten-pound note. That decision has been controversial, though it is hard to see why. Few people have written as shrewdly about money or about families—even though Austen did not marry, and had no children.

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