Last week, I spent some time talking about demographics and the latest CDC birth numbers. There were a number of interesting aspects to this data, but the big takeaway was that the percentage of first-child births has hit an all-time low. As I said last week, this suggests that we're slowly bifurcating into a society where we have two classes of adults: parents and non-parents.

This divide is important enough—and shocking enough—that it’s worth talking about a little more explicitly.

The latest numbers suggest that an amazingly high percentage of women today—18.8 percent—complete their childbearing years having had no children. Another 18.5 percent of women finish having had only one child. Together, that’s nearly 40 percent of Americans who go their entire lives having either one child or no children at all.

And it's a big change in behavior from the recent past. There have always been people who lived without having children—either by happenstance or by choice. But for all of American history, the numbers of this cohort were fairly small. In 1970, for instance, just about 8 percent of women completed their childbearing years with no children. (And only about 11 percent of women finished with only one child.) Over the next 40 years, those numbers rose almost without interruption. (The numbers ticked backward only once, in 2002.) This dramatic increase in childlessness—the number more than doubled—took place in just two generations and came at a time when medical advances were drastically improving the odds of infertile couples conceiving.

So what happened?

It's a complicated answer. (I’ve written an entire book on precisely this question. It’s called What to Expect When No One’s Expecting and it comes out this January. You can pre-order your copy today!) But let's make one big distinction about the causality.

There are two schools of thought concerning America's fertility decline: economics and culture. (Actually there are three schools, but we’ll set that third one aside for the time being.) The economic school says that macroeconomic changes in American life have made having babies less important. As we moved from agriculture to industry, from rural life to urban life, children became both less helpful and more expensive. What's more, the advent of Social Security and then Medicare inserted the government into family life by giving the state responsibilities for taking of the elderly that children once bore.

What the entitlement state meant was that for the first time in history, people didn't need children to care for them in their old age. The government would do it. Socializing this cost created a market distortion. Children are expensive to raise and everybody gets the government's geezer goodies, whether they pay for the cost of creating new taxpayers or not. So only the suckers have kids.

That's the economic argument. And I don't mean to dismiss it, because it has been an important driver in what’s happened to fertility in America. But as to the specific question we’re looking at today—the rise of childless Americans in the last 40 years—it just isn't sufficient to explain the shift. After all, by 1970, Social Security had been on the books for a generation. And when you look at our fertility numbers, they'd been trending slightly downward since 1950 as the Baby Boom faded. But just around 1970, they went into a nosedive.

Which brings us to the second explanation: It's the culture. What happened beginning in 1970 was a massive change in American culture. Just to tick off a few of the most obvious changes: abortion, contraception, marriage, divorce, and religious practice. Each of these subjects underwent titanic shifts beginning in or about 1970. And as our relationship to them changed, so did our behavior with regards to family life.

Where does that leave us today? With one final, scary thought. What if our new reality—the fact that a fifth of Americans no longer bother to have children at all—exerts its own pull on our demographics? There's some data from Europe and the Far East to suggest that once a critical mass of people choose to remain childless, their example influences young adults and alters their behaviors and expectations. To give you just one example, Germany has had a higher degree of childlessness than America, and for a longer time. In a 2006 survey of fertility aspirations, 23 percent of German men said that having no children was the ideal form of family life. Think about that for a moment. And now think about what it means for a civilization to have a quarter of its men not interested in having any children at all.

It calls to mind a deeply profound point from Christopher Caldwell’s recent profile of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. Confronting his country’s demographic crisis, Orbán said:

"Demography is the key factor. If you are not able to maintain yourself biologically, how do you expect to maintain yourself economically, politically, and militarily?" he asks. "It's impossible. The answer of letting people from other countries come in …that could be an economic solution, but it's not a solution of your real sickness, that you are not able to maintain your own civilization."

The reason we care about fertility numbers and demographics is because this—our civilization—is exactly what’s at stake.

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