But the idea that mass childlessness is the product of a “lifestyle choice” or a political movement defies common sense. We are, after all, highly evolved primates. Reproductive instincts are hard wired in our brains, and historically, only events of serious magnitude—wars, depressions, famine, and seismic shifts in the economic system, such as the industrial revolution—have caused large numbers of women to forgo having children. When resources are scarce, and when they don’t have much help, women will postpone motherhood. And despite the romantic myth of the self-sacrificing mother, if given the option, most women will choose to advance their own position before bearing more children. That’s because in the long run, a woman’s improved status benefits her children. It’s a pattern replicated all over the natural world, and has been for thousands of years.
Our failure to recognize this pattern—and the systemic changes manifested as individual decisions—has serious implications for the future. Many people will argue that a lower birth rate is a good thing for an overpopulated planet—and they will be right, up to a point. It’s the forces driving widespread childlessness that should concern us. America’s disappearing children are the canaries in our coal mines, a warning that our social and economic system is seriously out of whack.