Sunday, July 15, 2007

Political Implications of Fewer Children

The Pew Research Center issued a survey last week that showed that children are becoming a less important part of our marriages--and our adult lives. The Christian Science Monitor has a very interest article that explores the political implications of a less child-focused America--on issues like education and accommodations for working mothers and fathers:

Americans' child-free years are expanding as empty-nest seniors live longer and more young adults delay – or skip – childbearing. In 1960, nearly half of all households had children under 18. By 2000, the portion had fallen to less than a third, and in a few short years it's projected to drop to a quarter, according to a report from the National Marriage Project.

Children are also taking a back seat in perceptions of marriage's purpose. Since 1990, the percentage of people who said children were very important to a successful marriage tumbled from 65 percent to 41 percent. The findings were released in a Pew Research report last week.

For some child-free Americans, their growing numbers argue for greater equality with parents in government benefits, the workplace, and social esteem. That worries family researchers and child advocates who see in the same trends a move to a more "adult-centered culture" – one that threatens the strength of families and the social compact to provide for the next generation.

"We are getting much more of an adult-oriented culture than has ever existed arguably, and that could prove problematic," says David Popenoe, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "You can envision a society in which children are kind of an afterthought and not in the interests of society as a whole."

He sees the priorities reflected on television: Almost gone are family sitcoms in favor of a generation of programs following the model of "Friends" and "Sex and the City."

And he worries about a shift at the ballot box. In New Jersey, voters rejected nearly half of school budgets in the state last year – the lowest passage rate in more than a decade, according to a report from Mr. Popenoe's center.

With parents a smaller presence at the polls – just under 40 percent in the 2004 presidential election, some child advocates say it's getting harder to win empathy on issues.

It's not: Do people love children? It's: Are they thinking about them?" says Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of California San Diego School of Law.

In California, older adults are not passing along opportunities to the next generation, Dr. Fellmeth argues. He decries the lack of universal health coverage for children, low funding for foster-child families, and skyrocketing university tuitions.

. . .

A major flash point: workplace benefits. Family-friendly policies such as flex leave and day-care options not only allocate more of the benefits pie to workers with children, but child-free workers also can be left picking up the slack for co-workers on family leave, says Thomas Coleman with Unmarried America, a nonprofit information service about unmarried adults based in Glendale, Calif.

Myriad government policies, he says, leave the child-free feeling like second-class citizens – everything from the exclusion of siblings under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to greater death benefits given to families by Social Security and the US military.

But with only 35 percent of the US workforce having a child under 18 at home, businesses have begun shifting to more neutral work-life programs. They include the same amount of paid time off for all workers, cafeteria-style benefits, and generic benefits like gym memberships that all workers can utilize.

No one is advocating ignoring the needs of children or those who are raising children. That's important to everyone in society whether you have children or not, but things have to be more balanced," says Mr. Coleman.

Part of that balancing act, he says, is taking into account the 19 percent of women in their early 40s who are childless. That's up from 9.5 percent 26 years ago.

Women are marrying later, devoting more attention to careers, and waiting longer to have children, which sometimes results in them not having children at all.

Other times the choice is deliberate. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 6.2 percent of women in 2002 between ages 15 and 44 reported that they don't expect to have children in their lifetime – up from 4.9 percent in 1982.

Read it all here.

My own firm is moving in the opposite direction--we want to attrack the best and the brightest young attorneys of both sexes, and this generally means that we need to have very children and family friendly policies on part time work, leave and child care. And, as I discuss on The Lead today, there is a stronger interest than ever before in part-time work by mothers of young children.

I also think that we need to rethink the notion that it is healthy for such a "adult-focused" society. (I know, I have a toddler so may have a biased view). Given that today's infants are tomorrows voters and workers in just two decades, even the childless have an interest in the good upbringing of children.

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