Beyond Babies

At the fashionable Da Capo Cafe on bustling Kolonaki Square in downtown Athens, Greek professionals in their 30s and early 40s luxuriate over iced cappuccinos. Their favorite topic of conversation is, of course, relationships: men's reluctance to commit, women's independence, and when to have children--or, increasingly, whether to have them at all. "With the years passing my chances of having a child go down," says Eirini Petropoulou, a 37-year-old administrative assistant at the Associated Press news agency. "But I won't marry anyone just to have a child." She loves her work and gets her social sustenance from her parea, or close-knit group of like-minded friends, who increasingly play the role of family for young Greeks. "If at 45 I'm still childless, I'll consider having a child on my own," she says. But it's not as if her sense of personal fulfillment depends on it.

Just a few decades ago, Petropoulou and her friends might have been considered, well, odd. Greece was known as one of Europe's most traditional societies, where the Orthodox Church's strict commandment to marry and multiply held sway. Powerful social and religious taboos labeled childless women as barren spinsters, and cast suspicion on the sexual preferences of single, middle-aged men. No longer. In the space of a generation, that tight social corset has largely vanished, thanks to an array of factors, including better education and job options for women and Greece's entry into the cultural mainstream of the European Union. The result: a marriage rate below the EU average, and a birthrate among the world's lowest, at 1.3 per woman. To young Greeks like Petropoulou, babies are great--if the timing is right. But they're certainly not essential.

In Greece, as in much of the world, having kids is no longer a given among a growing swath of the population. "Never before has childlessness been a legitimate option for women and men in so many societies," says Catherine Hakim, who studies the phenomenon at the London School of Economics. In a rapid shift occurring in countries as disparate as Switzerland and Singapore, Canada and South Korea, young people are extending their child-free adulthood by postponing children until they are well into their 30s, or even 40s and beyond.

A growing share are ending up with no children at all. Lifetime childlessness in western Germany has hit 30 percent among university-educated women, and is rapidly rising among lower-class men. In Britain, the number of women remaining childless has doubled in 20 years. In Japan, where the birthrate stands at a dismal 1.25 per woman, a record 56 percent of 30-year-old women are still childless, up from 24 percent in 1985. "Whether they become mothers or not will determine the future of Japan," says Miho Iwasawa of Japan's National Institute for Population Research.

The trend has spawned a new culture of childlessness. In Britain, there's a growing market for books such as "Child-Free and Loving It," which journalist Nicki Defago says she wrote "to let women deciding against children know that their feelings are perfectly normal." New support groups for the childless have sprung up, from the Vancouver-based No Kidding! to the British Childfree Association. In Japan, the trend toward postponing or not having children has given rise to an array of products like bedding supplier Kameo's Boyfriend Arm Pillow, and fueled trends like the unprecedented surge in pet ownership. Capitalizing on the growing status of these baby-substitutes among young Japanese, Honda is now designing cars that replace child seats with dog crates, and has even created a glove compartment with place for a Pekingese.

In Australia, real-estate developers and agents have focused on the childless as the fastest-growing type of household. With their generally higher spending power, the childless are driving real-estate prices in expensive areas like Manhattan and central London; a recent British study showed a house's value drops by 5 percent if neighbors move in with teenage kids. Hotels are catering to the childless, too; Italy's La Veduta country resort promises, "Your Tuscan holiday will not be shattered by the clamor of children." In Rome, many restaurants make it clear that children are not welcome--in some cases by establishing themselves as "clubs," where members must be older than 18 to join.

The latest surge in childlessness does not follow historic patterns. For centuries in Western Europe, it was not unusual for a quarter of women to remain childless--a higher rate than in any country today. (In fact, demographers say it was the family-happy 1950s and '60s that defied the historical norm.) But in the past, childlessness was usually the product of poverty or upheaval, of missing men in times of war; infertility strikes 3 percent of couples at most. Today the decision to have--or not have--a child is the result of a complex combination of factors, including relationships, career opportunities, lifestyle and economics.

The new normalcy of childlessness affects all social classes, not just the stereotypical urban slackers or DINKs (double-income-no-kids). Katy Hoffmann, a 37-year-old hairstylist in the village of Friesack, an hour west of Berlin, says, "Even when I was a little girl I knew deep inside I didn't want children." Growing up in communist East Germany, the pressure was intense to marry and get pregnant by the age of 18, not least to qualify for a state-assigned flat. With the fall of the wall came the freedom to choose her life. Her husband, Lars, a 39-year-old firefighter, says he's long been indifferent to kids as well. "At the station the guys with kids tell us childless guys we should do our duty so that we Germans don't die out," he says. "But if I look at all the unemployment today, I'd say a little [population] shrinking couldn't hurt."

And while child-free households have long been common in the big cities of America and Western Europe, they're fast gaining acceptability in more-traditional rural societies as well. Only a few decades ago, Southern European countries like Italy, Greece and Spain were synonymous with fruitful families and tight knit clans-- and their social ostracism of those who didn't fit the mold. Now those three countries are tied for Europe's lowest birthrate. Today close to a quarter of all 40-year-old Italian women expect to remain childless.

In some cases childlessness among women can be seen as a quiet form of protest. In Japan, which is in the midst of a child-free revolution, support for working mothers is almost non-existent (though recently that's begun to change). Child care is expensive, men don't help out, and some companies strongly discourage mothers from returning to work. No wonder women there think it's no coincidence that the Japanese word for "child" is pronounced the same way as "lonely." "Children are adorable, but in Japan it's career or child," says Kaori Haishi, author of "Reasons for Not Having a Baby." It's not just women who are opting out of parenthood; according to a recent study, Japanese men are even less inclined to marry or want a child. Their motivations, though, may have more to do with economic factors. Experts point to growing job insecurity and concern about the country's economic direction as driving forces for men's reluctance to raise a family.

At the same time, around the world it's mostly men who are at the head of a growing backlash against the childless. Politicians and religious leaders warn darkly of an "epidemic" of childlessness that saps the moral fiber of nations; they blame the child-free for impending population decline, the collapse of pension systems and even the rise in immigration. In Japan, commentators have identified the "parasite single" who lives off society instead of doing his duty to start a family.

In Germany, where the childless rate is the highest in the world, at 25 percent, the best-seller lists have been full of tomes forecasting demographic doomsday. In "Minimum," the conservative commentator Frank Schirrmacher describes a "spiral of childlessness," where a declining population becomes ever more reluctant to have kids. Media reports have stigmatized the "cold career woman"--one such recent article came with mug shots of childless female celebs--accusing them of placing their jobs before kids. Never mind that Germany trails its neighbors in the availability of child care, or the amount of time men spend helping around the house.

From Germany to Russia, there is increasing talk of sanctions against the childless. In Slovakia, a leading adviser on the government's Strategic Council on Economic Development proposed in March to replace an unpopular payroll tax with a levy on all childless Slovaks between the ages of 25 and 50. In Russia, where the birthrate has dropped from 2.3 in the 1980s to 1.3 today, a powerful business lobby has called for an income-tax surcharge on childless couples. In Germany, economists and politicians have demanded that public pensions for the childless be slashed by up to 50 percent--never mind that such pensions were invented as an alternative to senior citizens' having to depend on their offspring. These moves resonate favorably with voters and the media. Since a large majority of people in all countries still do have children, critics say such measures in effect serve as middle-class tax breaks in the guise of social policy.

In any case, there is no reason to believe that sanctions against the childless will do much to raise the birthrate. Germany, for instance, already spends more than any other country on family subsidies, and has the world's second-highest taxes on childless singles (after Belgium). Yet that hasn't done a thing to boost the birthrate. In fact, critics and demographers say that targeting the childless is misguided. "You can't emphasize enough that childlessness is not the reason for low birthrates," the LSE's Hakim says. Instead, study after study shows that the real culprit is a sharp drop in family size; in low-birthrate countries, those who do have children are just having one or two at most, instead of three or four. In Italy and Japan, among the 80 percent or so of women who do still have children, the one-child mini family has become the new social norm. This, too, is a modern lifestyle choice. "It's the minimal family that lets you off the hook from parents and social expectations, but exacts the least burden on your lifestyle," sociologist Hakim says.

The public debate needs to take a new approach. "When countries like Germany try to restigmatize childlessness, they're going against the evidence," says Hakim. Forget sending childless couples on romantic cruises, as Singapore's "Dr. Love," Wei Siang Yu, did; governments should tweak policies to nudge parents who already have a kid or two to give it another go, say experts like Hakim. They might take their cue from France, which recently beefed up child subsidies to increase sharply with children numbers three and four.

Part of the trick may be persuading women to start their families earlier. Fertility decreases rapidly after the age of 35, despite new technologies designed to help keep women's eggs viable longer (sidebar). Among women who do have children, the average age of first conception has risen from 24 in 1971 to 30 today. A new study from the Vienna Institute for Demography suggests a rush of women having children in their late 30s and beyond. In Greece, for instance, the average birthrate is 1.3 children per woman. But among women born in 1960, it's 1.9. Among Italians, it's 1.7 for women born in 1960, compared with 1.2 for the rest of the population, and for Germans it's 1.6, up from 1.4. That means that what looks like childlessness is simply late childbearing.

But late can easily become never. Most childless couples simply wait too long to conceive; only about one third make a deliberate decision to remain that way, says Tomas Sobotka, a demographer at the Vienna Institute and author of an upcoming study of young Europeans' family intentions. Indeed, the rate of lifetime childlessness is slowly rising alongside the age of first conception. Growing up in smaller families affects childbearing plans down the road; polls among young adults today show a continued decline in their ideal family size--dropping below replacement fertility in more and more countries. Couples in coffee shops will continue to discuss their evolving relationships and the never-ending struggle to balance work and family. "We have no idea where the new equilibrium will be," says Sobotka. A lot, of course, depends on how people like Eirini Petropoulou eventually make up their minds.

With Toula Vlahou in Athens, Barbie Nadeau in Rome, Silvia Spring in London, Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo, Karen Springen in Chicago and Tracy McNicoll in Paris