The city's no place for kids. Credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

August 16, 2019   4 mins

Cities are magnets of diversity. It’s usually the case that the bigger and better connected the city, the greater the variety of people living and working together there.

Different cultures, colours, creeds, classes, languages and identities of every kind: all are included. Except for one group of people who find themselves increasingly excluded from the urban milieu: children.

It’s a phenomenon explored by Derek Thompson in a must-read piece for The Atlantic:

“In high-density cities… no group is growing faster than rich college-educated whites without children, according to Census analysis by the economist Jed Kolko. By contrast, families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places. In the biggest picture, it turns out that America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births.”

Consider the statistics for New York:

“Since 2011, the number of babies born in New York has declined 9 percent in the five boroughs and 15 percent in Manhattan.”

Or Washington DC:

“…the overall population has grown more than 20 percent this century, but the number of children under the age of 18 has declined.”

Or the tech capital of the world:

“San Francisco has the lowest share of children of any of the largest 100 cities in the U.S.”

The great global cities are portrayed as places of youth and vibrancy. They certainly attract ambitious, highly educated twenty-somethings – which is why big companies base themselves there: so that they can take their pick of the brightest young minds. This is especially true of the tech sector.

In 2007, it was reported that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, told a conference that “young people are just smarter.” Zuckerberg himself was only 24 at the time and well on the way to global domination – and thus could be excused for thinking such a thing (which, in any case, is correct in some respects).

He’s also reported as saying that “Young people just have simpler lives. We may not have a car. We may not have a family.” In a long-hours working culture, that’s something that adds to their employability – and another reason why top employers love big cities.

The heaving metropolis doesn’t just concentrate bright young things in one place, it also ensures that they can be worked without distraction. The sky-high property prices that put city-centre family homes beyond the reach of most young workers are a feature not a bug. They stop reproduction from getting in the way of productivity.

Family life isn’t solely about having children of our own, of course. It’s also about continued participation in the families we were born into – and, beyond that, a wider circle of friends and neighbours. To take one’s place in a community, to learn from others so that responsibilities can be handed from one generation to the next, is (or was) part of becoming an adult – as much as getting a job or getting married.

The concentration of young talent in big cities severs these connections too; distance weakens established old family ties just as property prices discourage new ones.

But does this matter? There’s plenty of time in one’s thirties and forties to quit the city and do the whole family and community thing somewhere less frenetic. So why shouldn’t twenty-somethings – excuse me while I vomit – ‘work hard and play hard’?

It’s a neat idea, but collapsing birthrates around the world suggest that many people never make up for lost time. I wonder where the big employers hope to find the next generation of eager recruits if they’re not even being born? Immigration is only a stop-gap because western demographic trends are spreading to developing countries.

There are political consequences too. Derek Thompson describes America’s great divide:

“With its rich blue cities and red rural plains, the U.S. has an economy biased toward high-density areas but an electoral system biased toward low-density areas. The discrepancy has the trappings of a constitutional crisis.  The richest cities have become magnets for redundant masses of young rich liberals, making them electorally impotent.”

Any group of voters (e.g. college educated urban liberals) who concentrate themselves in a few locations are not only likely to lose elections – but also to be shocked when they do. After all, almost everyone they know thinks and votes the way they do – so, how does the ‘other side’ keep winning? It must be some kind of trick!

The sense of bewilderment is accentuated by one of resentment. If the cities are generating most of the money and thus ‘subsidising’ other parts of the country, then suburban and provincial voting preferences are perceived as ingratitude if not outright stupidity.

Of course, if you’re relying on other parts of the country to supply most of the people – it shouldn’t be so surprising if they perceive you as dependent on them.

Thompson sums it all up as a “division of labour”:

“America’s rich cities specialize in the young, rich, and childless; America’s suburbs specialize in parents.”

But while a division of labour may work in a factory – different workers specialising in only one part of the job – it can’t work in a country. Each component community, whether urban, suburban or rural, has to do the whole job of being a community, finding a place for people at every stage of life.

A truly flourishing community is an extended family, joining together the generations. The childless city, however, is something quite different: an extended workplace. For all its diversity, it is fundamentally incomplete.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.