The U.S. is admittedly nowhere near being a childless society - at least not yet. This isn't yet Italy where nearly one-quarter of women are childless. Still the U.S. birthrate is now the lowest in its history and likely to get lower - the fertility rate having dropped a full 9% between 2007 and 2011. These numbers are from an article in the August 12 issue of Time, tellingly entitled "None Is Enough," by Lauren Sandler.
Sandler cites the standard critiques of this troubling trend. She references Jonathan V. last's book What to Expect When No One's Expecting, which warns of the potential economic calamity of having fewer consumers and taxpayers. She cites Ross Douthat's argument that the "retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion" revealing "a spirit that privileges the present over the future."
Sandler's sympathies are suggested, however, by her referring to such comments as childless women "being scolded." One gets the sense from the article that the problem lies more in a culture which still prizes motherhood. Anecdote after anecdote tells the liberating tale of women who have transcended such cultural norms to embrace being not child-less (which implies a lack) but child-free.
That this freedom is indeed very much all about "a spirit that privileges the present over the future" is evident from such testimonies as the following. "I get to do all sorts of thing: buy an unnecessary object, plan trips with our aging parents, sleep in, spend a day without speaking to a single person, send care packages to nieces and nephews, enroll in language classes, go out for drinks with a friend on the spur of the moment ... free from all the contingencies that come with children." Of course, these are all nice things to do. None of them are bad. Some (attending to aging parents, sending packages to nieces and nephews)are genuinely other-regarding. Most. however, are quite self-regarding. While perfectly legitimate activities in themselves, as personal priorities they seem amazingly self-absorbed and in many case incredibly trivial compared with the larger life-project of raising a family.
Now, of course, not everyone is meant to be a parent. Historically, many religions have recognized this, providing a fulfilling alternative vocation. Thirty-one years ago today, I made my First Profession as a member of a Roman Catholic religious society, committed to a celibate life in community in service to the Church. Certainly many priests and religious feel the lack of family quite deeply. (One seminarian in my time even referred to not having children as "the pain of loss," which accompanies a religious vocation - clearly a sense of being child-less rather than child-free.). On the other hand, there can be no doubt that for many - historically for many women especially - religious life offered a welcome (and interesting and fulfilling) alternative to the burdens of marriage and family life and the physical dangers of childbirth. Even so, such vocations (however plentiful in previous periods) were never seen as the norm. Fatherhood and motherhood remained the normal vocations for most people. And the religious vocation was perceived by the larger community as making its own valued contribution to society. (The decline in such vocations in the Western world today is surely due in at least some measure to a diminished sense that such vocations really do contribute something to society).
Above and beyond the economic consequences of a possible demographic desert, what happens when a society privileges its present over its future to such an extent that the pursuit of personal self-actualization acquires en ethical value equal to the vocation of parenthood? The modern world is embarked on an historically and morally novel path - the first society ever to attempt to organize itself on an individualistic basis, free from the encumbrances of religion and family. It remains yet to be seen whether such a project can seriously succeed over any long term and what such a brave new world might look like.