The Kids Aren’t Having Kids: Why Does Choice Scare Us?
The New York Times ran a room for debate during the week about whether it is smart to delay adulthood? The concerns are evergreen. Later Generation Xers and Millennials aren’t buying houses, cars, and are having children much later than previous generations and they still like video games and . The most surprising thing about this room for debate is that it is late to the game for this pearl-clutching genre. The Atlantic dubbed these two groups The Cheapest Generation two years ago and I still see The Atlantic article fly around social media. The Atlantic has a host of articles about delayed adulthood and changing status symbols from 2012. The Bold Italic covered how being childless and in your mid-30s creates a weird sensation of being not-quite adult yet even if you can’t stay out till 1 A.M.
I think these evergreen debates say more about the fact that people seemed overwhelmed and potentially scared by the amount of options that exist for current generations. The debates can also be divided into three categories: Deciding to have kids, the decline in home ownership, and cultural preferences.
Having Kids Later in Life: Soundplanning or Narcissistic Lifestyle Choice
Millennials are allegedly having kids later than previous generations or not really settling down at all. I think this can probably be better translated as Millennials with college or advanced degrees are having children later in life. This is probably true enough. I was born in 1980 and the first pregnancy for my mom. She was 34 and this was considered old for first children then. Now it seems much more common to have children in your mid-30s and later. Most of my friends seem to have their first children between 33-36 but a good chunk of my friends are still childfree and/or still single even though they are in their mid-30s or older. I can only think of six or so people from high school or college that have more than one child.
I suspect the childrearing group can be divided into a few categories: People who don’t want kids at all (The Childfree Movement), People who want children but haven’t found a spouse yet, people who want children but don’t feel financially secure enough yet, and then people like me who are neutral on the idea of having children. I can see leading a happy and productive life without having a family but I don’t feel strongly enough about it to consider myself part of the childfree movement and people in the movement can often be very nuts in their anti-child rhetoric.
The most interesting groups here are probably the childfree and people who want kids but feel financially unready.
I don’t know how big the childfree population is. I knew a few woman who declared themselves childfree in undergrad and they are still going strong. I suspect the movement is small. What freaks people out though is that childfree people are no longer spinster and lonely schoolmarms or librarians or lonely old bachelors in boardinghouses. Now people can choose to be childfree and have long, healthy, and active lives including sexually active lives. There still seems to be part of our collective cultural brain that exists in a pre-Industrial world where children are necessary for labor on the farm or cottage industries. We have not yet fully adjusted to the idea that it is not necessary to have a large number or kids for the sake of survival yet.
The people who want kids but don’t feel financially ready are probably a more interesting discussion. What does it mean to not be financially ready? I suspect that a lot of people could probably choose to have kids and be fine but they don’t want to yet because it would mean cutting back of their nice lifestyle right now and spending less money on themselves. Having kids would mean less money and time for going out and travel and other consumer products and potentially moving away from cities and to the burbs. I could probably afford to have a kid on my current income (assuming it was a true salary instead of a freelancers rate) but it would mean moving farther away from cities than I would like. People in this group are making a calculated decision that they can cut back on personal spending less if they wait to have kids at an older age. I don’t necessarily see what is wrong with this option. People live longer. You can have a kid at 36-39 and still have decades left of life by the time your child reaches 30. But there still seems to be part of our collective brain that thinks people are likely to die in their forties and having kids younger is better.
So people are doing things a bit differently and it causes a freakout. I still have yet to hear someone come up with a good reason why having children in your twenties is better than waiting until your thirties or early forties especially because we are living longer lives.
Why is it bad the homeownership is down?
The Cheapest Generation article has statistics showing that homeownership is down among late Generation Xers and Millennials.
I think there are several reasons for this. I’ve been making decent money since graduating law school but as a freelancer. Many people in my cohort are freelancers. The idea of having a mortgage as a freelancer is kind of scary. Though I suppose it shouldn’t be any scarier than paying the rent as a freelancer. There is also the fact that my generation is supposed to prefer city life and walkability. This is true for me. I love cities and I love being able to walk to buy groceries, to the movies, to bars, etc. There are plenty of areas where I could afford to buy a house but it would require a long commute to SF or New York.
Again we are dealing with issues of choice and which is better and lots of cultural differences. Why is it better for me to buy a house in an exurb instead of renting an apartment in an interesting neighborhood? The argument seems to be that home ownership makes you more mature for reasons I don’t quite get. I’d rather rent a nice one-bedroom than have two acres of property that need caring for. I’m not much of a green thumb. This choice seems to put people at unease though. Previous generations might not have had choices like this at all.
There are also economic arguments against homeownership. Though I am not completely opposed to the concept and do dream of a nice house in Marin or Westchester or a nice condo in SF or Brooklyn.
The Culture Question
Another part of the Millennial complaint brigade is complaining about how they are still into videogames, comic books, and other activities from their childhood.
This is interesting because the video game and comic book industries do feel unique because the consumers grew up and remained loyal to them and the companies changed and started introducing products that were more likely to appeal to older audiences. I am not sure that there was another entertainment product that started out as being for kids and then developed a large supply of adult consumers who stayed loyal. Maybe post-WWII popular music especially rock music and hip-hop? Does anyone else have other examples?
I admit that I find this aspect of the Millennials staying Kids debate to be a bit troublesome but that is probably my own snobbery and cultural elitism coming in more than anything else. I don’t quite understand how explosion and bang wow movies are still big among a good chunk of the over-30 set. And I am one of those people who despair that movies are just becoming bang wow franchises.
But this is really again about choice. There are much more entertainment and cultural choices than there were in generations past. We have an embarrassment of riches. Maybe most people never really liked The French New Wave or Soviet Montage but felt compelled to say they did because it was simply a sign of being adult to have cultural tastes.
We have more choices now and this is freaking everyone out. We can all probably stand to calm down. Kids are still being born. We are not going into a population free-fall. But people still think there is something less than adult about thirty-somethings who are child-free, might not be married, and living on their own in apartments in cities.