Pocket Living has been building and selling small flats in London since 2005. The flats have many of the things that young single people want, such as bicycle storage, and lack the things they do not, such as large kitchens and lots of bookshelves. At first, Pocket expected that most buyers would be in their late 20s, says Marc Vlessing, the firm's boss. Instead, the average age is 32 and rising. It is not that many buyers are yet to have children, speculates Vlessing; rather, they probably will never have them.
A growing number of city-dwelling Europeans are in the same situation. Just 9% of English and Welsh women born in 1946 had no children. For the cohort born in 1970 — who, barring a few late surprises, can be assumed to be done with babies — the proportion is 17%. In Germany 22% of women reach their early 40s without children; in Hamburg 32% do.
All of which may seem to suggest that Europe is bent on self-erasure. Childlessness is "a symptom of a feeble and terminally ill culture" that has lost touch with its heritage, according to Iben Thranholm, a conservative Danish journalist. The suggestion is misleading, however. Mass childlessness is not a sign of demographic collapse, nor is it remotely novel. It would be more accurate to say that rich countries are updating a long tradition.
In some European countries, such as Germany and Italy, the overall birthrate is low and childlessness is common. But other countries, such as Britain and Ireland, combine a high birth rate (by European standards) with a high rate of childlessness. And in still other countries, especially formerly communist ones in eastern Europe, childlessness is rare but birthrates are low because many women have one child. Overall, there is surprisingly little correlation between childlessness and fertility.