Dec 202012

The people in every generation start by being totally dependent on older generations.
Then they spend much of their lives co-supporting both younger and older generations.
Then they typically become dependent on younger generations.
Then they die.


Having children is a life-style choice.
It is not a biological imperative.
It is not a duty to the state.

Having children is a choice, at least in the developed world. (That includes the choice about whether to take sensible precautions and/or have an abortion). It could be described as an extended hobby, but since the consequences tend to be life-long, including typically being financially poorer for life, it is appropriate to call it a “life-style choice”.

It is not essential. Some people really want children. Some people really really really want children. Some inadequate people can’t find meaning in their lives without children. But other people have different hobbies, and those are not biological imperatives either!

If it were a duty to the state, the state would intervene if you didn’t have children. It doesn’t, honest! Any parent’s contribution to the nation’s pool of children is typically about 2, and that is “noise” in the national statistics; it won’t make a detectable difference to the nation’s finances. And of course whether a person has children doesn’t affect whether all other adults have children, so it is stupid to ask the pointless question “what if everyone thought like that?” It is the parents’ own decision and it isn’t reasonable to blame external pressures.

A more important reason why it shouldn’t be seen as a duty to the state is that morally/ethically human beings should be treated as ends in their own right, not as means to ends. It is contemptible to think of children primarily as future taxpayers or future carers of their parents.


Human Rights Act Article 12, Right to marry:  “Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right.”

Human Rights Act, Article 2, Right to education: “No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Intergenerational resource transfers

Who pays?

Every generation starts off incapable even of surviving without resource transfers from the next-older generation (their parents and others) and often the next-next-older generation (their grandparents and others). We can discuss whether it takes a village to raise a child, or simply takes a family, but it certainly takes an older generation to raise a child. And countries with well-established welfare systems (including the UK) don’t leave it just to the family. They draw on financial resources from the wider public to assist the parents.

Some of the resource transfers to children

A feature of this is that having children is optional. Some of the people whose resources are being transferred to younger generations did not have children of their own, and so didn’t previously incur an intergenerational obligation.

The following diagram superimposes the lifetimes of everyone, so the arrows show that when one generation is at the “have children” stage and receiving resources, the same and other generations at the “working” stage are contributing those resources.

Simple view of intergenerational resource transfers

How resources are transferred

Although a lot of attention is paid to the state’s formal transfer methods, including tax and benefits, there are also informal transfer methods that long preceded the state’s formal system:

Intergenerational resource transfer systems

Both systems do much more than intergenerational transfers, but that is an element of both of them. Neither is adequate on its own; if either ceased, there would be massive strains on the other. Both have to be taken into account in debates; any discussion about one of them is likely to be extended or countered by advocates of the other. Both systems will be part of any solutions.

Arguably, neither is adequately designed for the 21st Century, and they don’t work together in perfect harmony! In fact, there is probably inadequate knowledge of how they fit together, partly because there appears to be little detailed documentation of the intergenerational transfers of the informal system. How big are the informal transfers both from young to old and from old to young within families (etc)? The cost of child-care is a known problem; how much of a role can/do older people in a family play?

The long term

The future of today’s children

Through no fault of their own, today’s children will eventually become old and make their own demands on the generations following them. (But even before that they will add to existing problems such as the shortage of housing, and require changes that will have an adverse impact on others).

Bringing too many children into the world will eventually create a large burden on the generations following them. We need a strategy that is more sustainable in the long-term.

The planet

See: “Do we fit on the planet?” (Global Footprint Network):

“Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.

“Moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, by the 2030s, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. And of course, we only have one.

“Turning resources into waste faster than waste can be turned back into resources puts us in global ecological overshoot, depleting the very resources on which human life and biodiversity depend.”

Population growth also helps cause more climate change and species depletion. It may lead to bitter conflicts over resources such as water and land. Future generations will evaluate the consequences of the choice to have children as “intergenerationally unfair”.


(Every minute, 18 children die)

“Having children” needs to be a major topic in debates about intergenerational resource transfers and fairness. But whereas there is an explicit assumption that younger people contribute to the care of the elderly and so build up their own entitlement to care when they themselves become  old, there is no assumption that those contributing to the care of children have ever had, or will ever have, children to be paid for by others. (This can lead to resentment).

The problem of population growth is just as important as the problem of the increase in the elderly. At least the current elderly will die within a few decades, especially if they gain the right to assisted suicide. But we should be trying to prevent childhood deaths, not killing children, and then they will consume resources and eventually become elderly and live that way for longer than the current elderly.

We need a strategy for catering for the elderly that doesn’t require ever-increasing numbers of children. And we need fewer children being brought into the world.

Further reading

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