The rise of the childless class

Due to the recommendation of a reader of this weblog I’ve been listening to the audiobook of John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. I am good at reading a text. I am not so good at patiently paying attention to the narration of someone speaking.

But with that said, one passage that stuck out at me is where Keegan talks about the tension between the Christian professional class of secular and religious priests and the military nobility of early medieval Europe. Priests and monks were the Christianized cultural descendants of the Roman elite, which engaged in war, but generally focused on literate self-cultivation so as to signal their acceptability to polite society (this was especially true after the 3rd-century emergence of an Illyrian military elite that took up the martial responsibilities of the Roman nobility). The post-Roman and early medieval ruling class, in contrast, was marginally literate at best, and with exceptions took after German warlords in their practices if not their professed beliefs.

Keegan notes that numerically the religious caste and the military caste were balanced, adding to the tension which was punctuated by events such as Humiliation at Canossa which occurred in 1077 AD. But my interest and thoughts were piqued by the realization that this balance between priestly and military castes is neatly paralleled in many societies. It occurred among ancient Indo-Europeans, and continued down into historical periods among Zoroastrian Iranians, and continues down to the present day in India among Hindus. In China, the situation is somewhat different, because the bureaucratic and civilian gentry had traditionally subordinated any military element. The famously civilian Song dynasty was founded by a successful general. But in Japan arguably the large Buddhist establishment coexisted with the samurai class, while in the Islamic world the ulema serves to buttress military caste.

And yet there are differences between these groups. The Western Christian priesthood and the Dharmic religious class exhibit a degree of detachment from normal society due to their celibacy. This is not the case for the religious class of Muslims, who marry and have children, just as Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and most Eastern Orthodox priests, do. Though Hindu priests generally marry, an ancient tradition of celibacy exists in Indian culture and persists within Hinduism, and this was transmitted throughout the world via Buddhism.

The Buddhist tendency to produce large self-supporting and independent institutions which supported celibate monks and nuns was one of the main reasons that the Confucian elite objected to the religion: it undermined family life.

The difference between religious and intellectual elites which have a normal family life and those which don’t remind me of a close friend who is a very productive and prominent (for his age) professor at an elite university. Now that he is settled down with someone, the consideration of children has emerged. If they are able to have children, likely a single child due to age, my friend expects that his life will change in many ways. This will impact his work. In fact, when it seemed likely that he was never to have children I did tell him that in a way it was a benefit to him, as he could pursue high-risk research and allocate his time geared purely toward maximizing human knowledge.

Aristotle married and hand children. Plato does not seem to have done so. I think the difference seems entirely reflected in the character of their philosophies. Christianity and the Dharmic religions have had large numbers of religious-intellectual professionals detached from worries of family life as monks across their history. In contrast, Jewish rabbis, Muslim ulema, and Confucian scholars have all had to concern themselves with family life.  I would say on the whole Christianity and the Dharmic religious have concerned themselves more with abstruse philosophical issues around metaphysics, while the latter religions have focused more on the organization of prosaic life so as to further “the good” as they understand it. Judaism, Islam, and Confucianism are fundamentally religions of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy.

When I say “family life”, I really mean children. Children change you in many ways. For parents, they are the biggest contributions you will make to the human race. Having children can cure many of abstract radicalism and hunger for philosophical speculation.

Of course, not all single people are reading thick scholarly tomes with their marginal time. Most American single people who will never have children are rather stupid, and so focus on consumption, sex, and assorted distracting leisure. They are hedonic machines. But, a minority are devoted to causes. To society. And they have a lot more time than those of us with family obligations.

Over the last generation American society has changed a great deal when it comes to children (or the frequency of):

Delaying marriage is related to delaying childbirth. The median age at first marriage has gone from 20.6 to 27.4 for women and from 23.1 to 29.6 for men since 1967. Age at first birth increased as well. Most babies are born to a married couple, so it is natural to see shifts in the percentage of adults who live with no children in particular age groups.

The largest change in the proportion of adults living without children happened among those aged 18 to 35. In 1967, the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds had children living with them (53.3 percent) but by 2016, less than a third did (31.2 percent).

The changes are even more dramatic among 25- to 34-year-olds. In 1967, 23.9 percent in that age group did not have their own children under their roof. By 2016, the share more than doubled to 61.5 percent.

What are the implications for a much larger number of American adults in their prime years living in households without children?

Societies are complex. I think the existence of a large number of celibate adults as a persistent institution probably resulted in some unique aspects of Western Catholic and Indo-Buddhist cultures. To be frank, I think a sort of strange and peculiar unmooring from reality can occur. The reflexive ridiculousness of Zen or the openness of hyper-rationalism of Thomas Aquinas are both products of this. This isn’t bad. The flourishing of science in Western Europe may have been enabled by the independent and detached institutions of Catholicism.

Today in much of the world we see a different phenomenon from religious institutionalized celibates: the existence of a large number of childless adults outside of a strong institutional framework that channels their energies and leisure. I think a consequence of this may be some peculiar enthusiasms for various radical ideologies.

34 thoughts on “The rise of the childless class

  1. I cannot help but think of this quote from Tokien:

    Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.

  2. Given the hereditary nature of Hindu castes (including Brahmins), I would not have thought of them as exhibiting the same tradition of celibacy. I had heard of ascetics, but I was under the impression they were more marginal.

  3. Apparently “illicit” sexual activity is widespread among supposedly “celibate” clergy, so perhaps “childless” is a better descriptor?

  4. Modern Judaism requires temporary celibacy for everyone (combination of monogamy laws and purity laws), but aside from a few limited cases, Biblical Judaism and the immediate post-Biblical period actually discouraged celibacy. There were limits on who priests could marry, but they were expected to marry nonetheless — so much so that the High Priest in the Temple was required to be married to hold his office.

    Rabbis don’t really have a special personal status in Judaism (no more so than a judge / lawyer / teacher does in modern Western culture) so they are not quite the right analogy to Christian priests.

  5. On the “ridiculousness of Zen”… In Japan, since the meiji restoration, the priests are expected to marry. The intention, as I understand it, was to weaken and drive out the foreign sect. I suspect it had the exact opposite effect.

  6. Wasn’t celibacy originally just about not marrying and thus not having heirs to give church offices to? The chastity part was secondary. So priests having illicit affairs is perfectly in line with the origin of the practice.

    I’ve long wondered if you should be allowed to vote if you don’t have children. You’re not making any contribution to the future so why should you have a say in it?

  7. It is a very interesting point. Especially in light of the fact that May, Macron and Merkel are all childless. I know that I changed radically when having children. E.g. atheist -> religious.

    There is another aspect of this equation as well — the one child. I’ve always wondered about the capacity of the Chinese to support a prolonged war in a one-child society. A Confucian one to boot.

  8. Today there’s no asceticism or special role involved in not having kids. Throughout human history you fall in love, have sex, babies happen, you love your kids, etc. Reproduction didn’t require any urge to have kids for the sake of having kids. Today, you get in the habit of using contraception and the ‘babies happen’ stage is avoided. If you are one of those couples who just doesn’t have any particular urge to have kids, then you don’t. Me and my wife are a normal married couple, we just don’t have kids. If it happens by accident, then we’ll love the kid, etc.

    Of course natural selection is coming down on this phenotype very hard, so how long can the demographic transition last?

  9. @ Eric yeah, at one point there were no fewer than 9 Euro leaders with no kids. truth be told, i don’t have them myself, they’re too annoying!

  10. If not all but most of the religious clergies including monks, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, and mullahs share one value which is hypocrisy at the highest level. Evidently, their celibacy lifestyle does not stop their corrupted inclination and intention which often results very sadly in sexual abuse of children & adults!!!

  11. @Eric K, of course in the British context, Corbyn has 3 and Rees-Mogg 6, and both advocate rather more radical, disruptive politics.

    I can imagine radicalism and abstraction appealing to the childless, or those same childless being more grounded, less certain that a safety net of children will attend to them in their dotage.

    I suspect it just gives you more time to consider data and ideas, and that where you take this is a product of temperament, ability and the sort of social forces Turchin discusses.

  12. Might I recommend that, after you finish Keegan, you tackle Martin van Creveld’s “The Transformation of War”? It’s a natural progression of Keegan’s thesis into the post-modern world. One military officer with whom I discussed van Creveld said that the title should have been “The Re-expansion of War.”

  13. @Polynices:

    I’ve long wondered if you should be allowed to vote if you don’t have children. You’re not making any contribution to the future so why should you have a say in it?

    Do you think Isaac Newton made no contribution to the future, just to give one example?

  14. Rabbis don’t really have a special personal status in Judaism (no more so than a judge / lawyer / teacher does in modern Western culture) so they are not quite the right analogy to Christian priests.

    it’s the same in islam. that’s relevant to my point, in that rabbis and khazis have default religious status that’s analogous to priests who can give sacrament.

    Wasn’t celibacy originally just about not marrying and thus not having heirs to give church offices to? The chastity part was secondary. So priests having illicit affairs is perfectly in line with the origin of the practice.

    celibacy has origins in xtianity going back to st. paul. monks were always notionall celibate i think. celibacy as a practice seems to have some classical pagan threads (attitudes toward sex etc.) and synthesized with judaism into early christianity.

  15. @Matt I’m not sure that having kids makes you less risk averse. In many cases, the opposite is quite true. You become laser-focused on their future prospects (including safety).

    No longer “What would be nice in the world?” but more like “What can I do to make sure my kids survive and thrive?”. Maybe even “what can I do to maximize to my children’s probability of procreation?” if you are an evolutionary psych type.

    It’s the difference between focusing on the upside (no kids) vs downside (with the kids). At least it has been this way for me…

  16. Celibacy for Catholic priests really became a rule around the 11th century, but it did have some foundation in earlier Christian traditions.

  17. @Eric K, psychologically that sounds pretty plausible and as your personal experience I’m sure it’s true. I guess I’m arguing that In the big picture I could see it going either way, or more likely, no way (no strong relationship).

    Someone should look at it with big data! More risk aversion / pragmatism in politics / finance in men pre / post-children, controlling for prior preferences and aging, or not.

    Getting on the religious aspects, I guess that would suggest that the priests of Protestantism should have become less, well, focused on abstruse matters of doctrine, when they could were released from celibacy and could become fathers (or, “patriarchs”).

    I’m not sure that’s obviously true at all though? Popular models tend to contrast pastoral, worldly and community focused Catholic priests (no kids) more focused on praxy with more theology and doxy focused Protestant priests (with kids). Albeit that’s confounded by social history of Catholicism as a more working class religion in Anglosphere, and in some ways possibly is more of a “dissenter Protestant” vs “Established Church (Protestant or Catholic” thing.

  18. “In China, the situation is somewhat different, because the bureaucratic and civilian gentry had traditionally subordinated any military element.”

    Perhaps this is why China was occasionally taken over by barbarians like the Mongols and the Manchu.

    “while in the Islamic world the ulema serves to buttress military caste.”

    There we see the phenomenon of armies of slaves from foreign ethnic groups such as the Janissaries and the Mamelukes.

    “The median age at first marriage has gone from 20.6 to 27.4 for women and from 23.1 to 29.6 for men since 1967.”

    The real anomaly might have been the early age of marriage in the post WWII years. I recall reading anthropological and historical studies many years ago that said the age of marriage in peasant societies was high because the children had to wait to inherit land before they could marry.

  19. @Sobchak: The late marriage pattern in Europe dates to the feudal age and was the result of the combined control of the church and the aristocracy of the unfree peasants. This was adapted in situations of wars, plagues, colonisation or famines, to motivate the unfree “working class” to have more or less children.
    Christianity started as a doomsday religious sect which neglected this mortal world completely. This included children and family.
    Just when the end of the world didnt come in time they started to make some sense, but the defect was deeply rooted. It made the Western culture a demographic anomaly and created a weakness, which being nowadays fully exploited.
    The “sense” for family, children, relatives, kin and useful traditions is dangerously underdeveloped in Western societies. This makes good, flexible workers and consumers, easy to keep, but unable to defend or care for themselves without a helpful state who cares. Fuel for the Capitalist machinery.

    I think most men have their ideological position before having children and thats the norm.
    But having children can alter ones perspective. Most of the time to a more practical outlook. If your childrens future being threatened, it can make you even more radical or at least less careless I would say.

  20. On the link between celibacy as a custom and thriving as a class (Brahmins), the two aren’t incompatible. You just have to have more children than you induct into celibacy. A class that had three sons and three daughters and sent one son and one daughter into a celibate order would still be sending two sons and two daughters into marriage, who would give you six grandsons and six granddaughters. If anything, it looks like a celibate safety valve should be more correlated with superfecundity, than anticorrelated with it.

    This is even before you consider whether these celibate uncles and aunts are completely without utility to their nephews and nieces, or of great help to them. In Europe, “nepotism” was sometimes cynically considered a mere fig-leaf over nominally-celibate fathers favoring their illegitmate sons, called “nephews” for the sake of propriety. But priests could also favor their real nephews, the sons of their sisters and brothers. Granted this is favoring them in the celibate order itself, but they could also help their family in other material ways.

  21. Though I’m skeptical, there is one biological fact that would tend to support less risky preferences in married men – decline of testosterone levels following marriage and children (

    That might shift to a less sex extreme cognitive profile, which would include less preference for risk, and more focus on kin-relationships opposed to competitive and team relationships?

    (Which is separate from married men as a class having lower levels than never married men at the same age; the comparison is to their pre-marriage selves and not a gradual process due to age).

  22. On a tangent from catholic priests, on this topic it seems like it probably makes sense to think about a division within celibate clergy between between priests and monks.

    Priests remain within or are placed within a community and have quite a worldly mission to act as the agents for that community. Particularly as the agents who are closely involved in providing religious legitimacy, affirmation and support to the major milestones of marriage and children.

    Though childless, they share the concerns of maintaining the rhythms of life and the existence of the community. Maybe more so than a patriarch who will have to share focus and attention to his lineage and kin alone.

    While monks are forming a separate religious community that is not focused on the secular world at all, and with different rhythms of life.

    (This is all somewhat broad and simplified, I know. Traditionally the sangha, of course, is usually fairly integrated into the local community, Christian monks vary on a spectrum of seclusion.

    Daoist monks are also very important to think about in China as well. China not just characterized by a split between Confucian early Chinese tradition and an imported, intrusive Buddhist tradition. A reclusive Daoist monastic tradition is present and influential within China from the earliest Warring States records. Zhuangzi!)

    Formation of an urban childless class in US is maybe more like the monks; people who sever themselves in fairly radical ways from the communities from which they were born, for learning, who don’t really come back together to form a new community with a focus on maintaining that community over generations (unlike even the religious protestant dissident settlers).

    It maybe then that for the urban childless class, having children helps ground them through the formation of a ersatz community around them. Albeit one that as shallowly rooted around close family has tendencies to amoral familism (, aka ‘family values’?

  23. It made the Western culture a demographic anomaly

    No, it didn’t. Pre-modern Japanese also had low fertility, especially among the ruling class. It has nothing to do with Christianity.

  24. @Twinkie: It has a lot to do with Christianity because it didnt exist before and was introduced with the massive changes caused by the Catholic church.
    It was however the combined effect in a feudal, unfree peasant society.
    Even if Japan, as a feudal society as well, showed similarities, that doesnt change the verdict of an anomaly in the global and generally human, as well as historical European context.

    The anomaly had positive and negative consequences, with the negative ones being deadly in our age.
    I should have written Catholic or Western church(es) to be correct.
    The tendency was there in other Christians as well, but not as extreme.

  25. The main issue is the “European marriage pattern” per se and not just one aspect of it. The aristocracy didnt share it for most of the time, even though they lost family members to celibacy.
    It was an issue with peasants and is now an issue for all, but for the Western or Westernized Bourgeoisie before all the others.

  26. So part of the success of Sikhism has to do with the fact that several their major gurus married and had children. Celibacy and disengagement from society are discouraged. Compared to Buddhism where laypeople are second class parctioners considered incapable of reaching enlightenment in the current lifetime (there is a theravada saying the an arahat must join a monastery within 8 days or die)

  27. It has a lot to do with Christianity because it didnt exist before and was introduced with the massive changes caused by the Catholic church.

    On what do you base the assertion? Do you have some fertility data to that effect comparing pagan Germans to the Christian Germans?

    Even before Christianity, the Roman urban elites already had low fertility. Far from a Christian or Western phenomenon, low fertility is frequently a result of high density urban living. Just as in Europe, the rise of urban population in East Asia likely accounts for much of its low fertility rather than Christianity. As East Asia urbanized even more intensely in the last 30-40 years, its fertility has collapsed (the other major contributing factor in modern times is the rise of female emancipation/education).

  28. Thats the real issue with the European marriage pattern: It affected all common people, including peasants in small settlements.
    The clan structures and extended families were destroyed or degraded.
    There are many aspects to it which are of importance, but late marriage for women and a large portion of unmarried and childless persons stick out. Thats an anomaly and it wasnt there before Christianity.
    Tacitus wrote about Germanic couples marrying later in comparison to pagan Romans, but that was just relative and subjective.
    Point is, women marrying at 24 on average or even later, which happened a lot, is biological madness, unless you want to keep that peoples numbers low and/or care more for their workforce.

  29. @Twinkie, you’re not wrong on that being a doubtful assertion, but I feel compelled to point out that as far as I know demographers just generally see changes in fertility rate as almost exactly matching reductions in death rate and infant mortality.

    See – /

    Like, it doesn’t seem to be that it’s urbanisation (or that there is a values change or change of focus of life with urbanisation), more that just as people’s children stop dying they stop having as many. Urban or rural.

    In China, for’ex, although a difficult example because of One Child Policy, birth rates drop in ’59-’79 and only after this happens does urbanisation rate increase ( You also see much earlier in the ’50s this drop of the birth rate after declines in death rate, then a spiking birth rate after the Great Leap Forward (

    Of course, there were demographic niches before this general population transformation which bucked the general trend. Ashkenazi Jewish groups had relatively low child mortality and high birth rates for a while, working out to higher population growth. I expect that’s is probably due to good fortunate to enter into economic niches – first finance, then more general urban burghers – which tended to be exploding in 2nd millennium Europe (as much of northern and eastern europe transitions to more sophisticated economy). Before reconverging with the general population more recently.

    (Again compare to a Chinese agricultural worker, not in an exploding niche, who might want to have lots of children to offset high deaths among them when infant and child mortality were high, but who’d have to worry about whether there’s enough land for all his children and enough money to meet the brideprice, if all his sons survived.)

    I don’t think there’s any evidence that I know of that the urban populations had lower fertility in pre-modern Europe, relative to the mortality rate or otherwise. There may be some effect of urbanisation or education, but I don’t think the consensus is that its a major driver.

    On the topic of the contribution of European marriage pattern to fertility though, would say that it does tend to be those countries within that late marriage zone today that have moved to higher birth rates outside marriage (and teen pregnancy) – 50% in France, 1% in Japan! Maybe tradition of late marriage linked to earlier discarding of marriage as pre-requisite to childbirth?

  30. What is the possibility that the fear of syphilis or threat of such diseases made some religions adopt celibacy for their knowledge classes? One would want the most wise person of their group to be sane and not be driven mad by syphilis or such?

  31. Like, it doesn’t seem to be that it’s urbanisation (or that there is a values change or change of focus of life with urbanisation), more that just as people’s children stop dying they stop having as many. Urban or rural.

    Internet search is your friend:

    To summarize, there is a persistent fertility gap between rural and urban areas in Europe as well as in nonwhite countries, including East Asia… even after medical improvements, etc. are isolated out. Urbanization and women’s education lower fertility significantly. The statistical data are pretty clear.

  32. Syphilis was “imported” from the Americas (a kind of exchange with smallpox) – if anything, it was after the discovery of America (and the appearance of syphilis in Europe) that celibacy begins to be contested in the Western Christianity.

  33. “Urbanization and women’s education lower fertility significantly. The statistical data are pretty clear.”

    That has a lot to do with what kind of “education” you get. Its more of an ideological issue than something else. But since “education” in that context usually means modern Western indoctrination, rather than something else, its true on a worldwide scale. I would say that education in general might lower birth rates in women, but certainly not the way it does. Thats a question of ideology and values, social and economic incentives before anything else.

    In the occidental sphere, the change was not as big because the “traditional values” were deconstructed by the Catholic church already. Even among farmers many children were much more of an economic issue than in other world regions where the descendents had more of an intrinsic value and the connection to and respect for the ancestors was much deeper and stronger than in Christian Europe.


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