Childfree


I am often surprised at the level of distortion that occurs when the conclusion of a statistical study is rewritten and edited for consumption by the wider news reading public. A case in point is the recent study by Dr. Luis Angeles, “Do Children Make Us Happier?” This is a statistical analysis of a life satisfaction survey that covered British adults from 1996 onwards. It found that children had little to no effect on life satisfaction for the population as a whole, however if divided into different groups then children tended to increase the satisfaction levels of married couples. However this is a statistical average – a fact that is often overlooked when the headlines get written:

There is certainly a lot of confirmation bias amongst journalists and newspaper editors. Those with a large family are especially prone to see only what fits in with their beliefs. If they had read the study in detail they might have noticed that children had an even greater effect on raising the life satisfaction of widows. Which leads one to wonder why no one came up with a headline that read: “The key to happiness is kids and a dead husband”?

There is so much temptation to infer direct causality, but even the author of the original research cautions against this when he concludes with:

One is tempted to advance, on the contrary, that children make people happier under the “right conditions”. We do not mean this as a moralistic defense of marriage. Instead, by right conditions we have in mind the time in life when people feel that they are ready, or at least willing, to enter parenthood. This time can come at very different moments for different persons, but a likely signal of its approach may well be the act of marriage.

This is an example of a latent variable effect. Angeles did attempt to explain this to the mainstream media:

Dr Angeles, director of the university’s Centre for Development Studies, speculated that the reason for the difference in happiness levels lay in whether children were planned or not.

He said: “People who have decided to get married probably have in mind that they want to have children.

“But in the case of unmarried parents, children might not be expected.”

So children tend to make parents happier if they were planned for, and married couples tend to be experienced practitioners of planned parenthood. It is not a surprise that married couples (who themselves may have spent a few years living together unwed) tend to be more experienced with the use of contraception than unmarried cohabiting couples. Experience grows with length of time spent cohabiting, married or not. But no survey is going to ask parents if their children were expected or unplanned. Marital status merely serves as an imperfect proxy for this.

Furthermore there is an element of survivorship bias when one realises that the married group excludes the divorced. Weren’t they once married? It is unlikely that their children were conceived after the marriage was dissolved. (We’re assuming that the remarried would fall into the married group.) So any previously married couples that broke up after a fall in life satisfaction don’t get included in the statistical average for the married group. In the study, children exhibit a very wide variance on the divorced group that included both negative and positive ranges.

And so the conclusion we should have made, yet is almost never reported in the news, is that children make couples happy if they are well prepared to be parents. Who knew?

The childfree should stand proud as this is what they’ve been saying all along: Only have kids if you really want them, are prepared for the parenting role, and all the responsibilities, demands on time and resources that entails.

I recently got back in touch with a classmate who graduated  a decade ago and had migrated halfway around the world to marry the women he fell in love with back then. I had promptly lost contact with him while dealing with my own personal issues, but thanks to the current global popularity of social networking websites we were able to update each other  via messages sent back and forth. Proudly he told me of his two kids and in reply I revealed that I’m still single and childfree, and that given my age and the uncertainties in the British economy, it looks likely to stay that way indefinitely. However, he was of the opinion that being a male, I still had plenty of time to start a family of my own. As if by coincidence, I happened to stumble upon this blog posting on recent research on male fertility. It seems, that men approaching midlife need to be everybit as aware of the ticking of their biological clocks as women already are today. Raising a child in today’s resource constrained and environmentally challenged world is already a significant gamble for healthy couples in their 20’s. Couples who waited until their financial situation was more secure before starting to have kids could face additional financial burdens due to increased health risks to their children. Furthermore, some of the problems their kids might face, such as autism, lower IQ,  and schizophrenia, may not be easily compensated for through financial means alone.

What time I have left to begin healthily reproducing offspring is most likely a lot shorter than most of my friends think.

But I’m not bitter. In fact, I’ve been a subscriber and advocate of the childfree philosophy for over three years now. And when I read in monetary terms how much new parents spend and have given up during the first few years of a baby’s upbringing, I find myself even more convinced that I’ve made the right choice.

Parents spend an average of £13,696 in their baby’s first year with more than £2,000 of that going towards childcare.

In the first three years of their child’s life, parents spend £1,496 on feeding them, £1,142 on clothes and £1,289 on books and toys.

However, one should not infer that I think all parents have made the wrong choice, since everyone’s situation is different and we all should be left to make up their own mind. But I cannot help but wonder how much forethought goes into such an important decision when I read about the conditions some struggling families are forced to endure due to the worsening economy. But is it really fair to demand that couples who are contemplating the step toward parenthood, should be able to predict economic conditions over the two decades it takes to raise a human from birth to adulthood, when top economists cannot even tell whether the recovery will come this year or next? And yet there are parents out there who expect way too much of themselves and end up overreaching. When circumstances do not go the way they hoped the consequences can be disasterous.

A spate of high-profile mass killings in the United States in recent months — including half a dozen rampages since March — shows the impact the economic meltdown is having on rising violence, experts say.

Direct correlations may not always immediately surface, but criminologist Jack Levin, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says the trends are clear.

“Catastrophic losses serve as inspiration, or precipitant,” he told AFP.

In a severe recession there are simply more people suffering such a loss, he says.

In an economic downturn, the United States often sees “many more large-body-count murders — on the job, in the family — as many more Americans feel desperate in a situation they feel got completely out of control.”

Parenthood is indeed a leap into the unknown and I think anyone making that leap, especially after considering the same things that I have, are very courageous people.

The London Housing Federation and London Councils published a report last week that found that the amount of homes with three or more bedrooms had almost halved in the last ten years. This has resulting in overcrowding in the capital with detrimental effects on children, and recommended that more family sized homes be built. However, Terry Fuller, chair of the Home Builders’ Federation’s affordable housing panel, said that many of the family homes (71% the affordable homes in London) were under occupied. “Why aren’t London councils sweating their assets better? There are plenty of family homes that are not used as well as they could be,” Fuller claimed that forcing developers to build larger homes would result in fewer affordable homes being built. “The greatest demand is from single people.” Perhaps the shift in housing size is merely a reflection of falling fertility rates across Europe. A closer examination of the data shows shrinking family size is a worldwide trend, so brilliantly revealed in an animated presentation delivered by Hans Rosling at TED (Technology Entertainment Design) earlier this year.

The links between family size, life expectancy, and prosperity seem pretty universal though the direction of causality is not so clearly revealed. In the last four years, the cost of raising a child in the UK has risen 28% bringing the national average to £180,000. The cost of housing is a significant factor in this increase however it is not just the size of the house that accounts for this extra expense. In the book, “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke“, Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert, Elizabeth Warren reveals that in America “married couples with children are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy as their childless counterparts.” One reason for this was identified:

“families were swept up in a bidding war, competing furiously with one another for their most important possession: a house in a decent school district. As confidence in the school system crumbled, the bidding war for family housing intensified, and parents soon found themselves bidding up the price for other opportunities for their kids, such as a slot in a decent preschool or admission to a good college.”

Indeed, British parents are no strangers to the intense competition for places in good schools, and this explains why affordable family housing may go unused if they happen to be badly located.

As a consequence, the housing market will target more single people and childfree couples, further encouraging lower fertility. But is this really such a bad thing? In 2005, the world population exceeded 6.5 billion with each successive billion person increment taking a shorter and shorter time. The WWF estimates that we would need two planets to sustain our projected population in 2050. A major factor is our rapidly increasing carbon footprint, of which the general public is slowly becoming more aware thanks to the success of documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” (DVD released just this week.) and “The Great Warming“. A less well publicised problem is the peaking of oil and gas production, which even the optimists say will occur by 2050.

Yet those calling for bigger homes seem to be projecting past social, economic and technological growth blindly into the future. Governments have been especially willing to gamble on future technology that promises to overcome barriers to growth, as demonstrated by recent support for research in nuclear fusion as a power source. However it is a risky proposition to base our family planning decisions on technologies that do not yet exist, and more so when they only solve part of the problem. Even those in the business of developing technology will be the first to admit the real world limitations to scalability. Last year, Gordon Moore made this comment in relation to his famous Moore’s Law:

“It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.”