By Jonathon Van Maren/Bridgehead.caSeptember 08, 2023
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A recent survey indicates that only a stunning 55% of Gen Z and Millennials plan to have children, with a quarter of those between 18 and 34 ruling out parenthood entirely. The most common reason cited for this is "wanting time for themselves."
We are now living, India notes, in an "era of extended adolescence," brought about in part by the rising costs of both living and higher education, which brings a consequent delay in "adult activities like going on a date, working for pay, learning to drive, or having sex."
There are other reasons, too. As India observes:
Modern culture also continually facilitates and encourages this extended adolescence. In our materialistic and individual-centred age, the pursuit of personal desires and self-discovery is often valued above all else, with traditional bonds seen as constraints.
Research by Professor Jean Twenge and her colleagues has examined the values of high school seniors from 1976 to 2006. They discovered that millennials are increasingly driven by extrinsic concerns such as money, fame and image, while moving away from intrinsic concerns like community and affiliation.
These increasingly individualistic values likely contribute to younger generations' adoption of a "slower life strategy". Twenge observes that contemporary early adulthood now involves taking more time for self-exploration in one's twenties, a pursuit not common in traditional collectivist societies.
Corporations, educational institutions and popular culture reinforce this cultural shift, capitalising on our prolonged adolescence. Take, for instance, the rise of therapy culture and a rapidly expanding trillion-dollar wellness market, which constantly encourage us to spend more money on ourselves, prioritise "me time" and cater to our "inner child".
Our infantilisation is indulged and commodified across various industries, from universities providing students with colouring books, bubbles and Play-Doh to the booming market for childlike activities and products such as "kidult" toys and adult Happy Meals.
India notes that delaying adulthood comes with real costs. Women are discovering that when they wait too long to have children, they may lose the opportunity entirely (like Jennifer Aniston, for example). We have more "me" time than at any point in human history, but it has come with "record levels of mental health problems, and a deepening sense of nihilism and disillusionment."
Studies indicate that sacrificing for others brings fulfillment, and India asks the question: As people stumble through their teens, twenties, and thirties, with many of the rites of passage and signature experiences of previous generations lacking, will the lost boys and girls experience deep regret in middle age?
The answer, in my view, is clearly yes--and there's a few other reasons that the younger generations are living in a period of extended adolescence, as well.
It isn't just that men are opting out of marriage and traditionally masculine activities--it's that those activities are being replaced. Rates of porn addiction among young men are approaching critical mass, deforming sexual desires (thus making women understandably less interested); creating record rates of erectile dysfunction; and wiring men's libidos to screens. It is true that young people are having less sex, but if you factor in solo sexual experiences with pornography, the opposite is true.
Two of the traditional primary drivers of masculine ambition were the desire for sex (thus the need to engage in dating/courtship resulting in marriage) and professional accomplishment. One is undermined and replaced by porn; the other by video games, which deliver that sense of accomplishment--even militarily--while making the male playing the game, if anything, less attractive, useful, and intelligent (insofar as the hours wasted could have been used for actual accomplishment).
As Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, observed: "For young men, gaming is up more than 50% since 2019. Guess what's down most among young men? Sports, exercise, working."
I know that it is impossible to criticize gaming without immediately attracting a fierce backlash. That, too, is indicative of just how important video games are to their users--the reaction to criticism often resembles that of a toddler when you take away one of their toys. The response is entirely disproportionate, and I suspect that past generations of men would have been contemptuous of the idea that grown, able-bodied men would get genuinely upset when their preferred game was criticized.
I know that generational comparisons can be taken too far, but I always think of my grandfathers in this context--hard workers and fathers of large families--and the idea that men could while away endless hours playing games would have disgusted them.
To be fair, Gen Z has often lacked role models, and this has undoubtedly contributed to declining marriage rates, as well. Many grew up in divorced homes and blended families, weathering the traumas of family breakup and the accompanying ills (which include navigating the romantic pursuits of their parents). The birthrate has been declining for decades, meaning that most young people have grown up with few siblings or cousins, which has come with its own laundry list of consequences (as Mary Eberstadt detailed in Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics).
In short, although all of the available research indicates that marriage and family bring the highest rates of happiness and fulfillment--married people are 30 points happier than the unmarried--it is also true that many Gen Zers haven't personally witnessed much to envy or emulate.
There are other reasons, as well. Gen Z grew up in the Digital Age--in addition to the ubiquity of pornography, social media has utterly transformed our self-perceptions, ambitions, and relationships with other people. Nicholas Carr's essential 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains details this; Samuel D. James' Digital Liturgies explains how the Internet has reshaped the upcoming generations.
The rise of social media and the selfie means that at any given moment, millions of young people are staring at their own faces on screens--and the skyrocketing rates of mental health problems indicates that most of them don't care for what they see.
A final observation. As big families have become a cultural aberration and the Sexual Revolution devastated our human ecosystems, certain ways of living are being lost. When peers at university asked me about my family and I told them that my dad was one of eleven siblings and my mother one of seven, they would gape in disbelief. Their response was nearly always some derivative of: "I couldn't imagine having a family that size!" They weren't exaggerating.
To most young people today, having two kids seems overwhelming; four is an enormous family; more than that is simply unfathomable. Most of them didn't see marriages that lasted a half-century or more and produced lots of children. In short, most of them have never seen, up close, a large family--and believe that having one is not just undesirable, but genuinely impossible.
As Brad Wilcox has noted frequently, one of the primary social cures for many of the ills facing our society is to once again emphasize the necessity of monogamous, faithful, fruitful, and life-long marriages. The data is clear: marriage makes people happier, promiscuity brings heartbreak, and couples who pray together are in fact more likely to stay together. Gen Z may think that marriage is restrictive and children are a drag--but nothing could be further from the truth.