(Epistemic status: Possibly a scrupulosity trap – if you aren’t stabilized yet, this frame might not be helpful, but YMMV. Also speculative.)
I refuse to have children. There are many reasons for this. Part of it is that I prefer women, part of it is that I do not think I would make a good mother, part of it is that there’s enough “glitches” in the way I think that I would likely be passing on a corrupted algorithm, and part of it is that children are heavy resource expenditure. That last reason is what this post is about.
Before I start, the model I’m working with here is that the shape of a human is determined by “algorithm” – the nature, neurotype, genetics someone comes into the world with, “experience” – the nurture, upbringing, traumas, and other things that form the idiosyncracies of a given algorithm, and “craft” – the things that you create in the world that may not be individually intense qualia, but form a quantity of experiences in your life that shift the lens with which you see the world. Experience is something I think tends to have a lot more impact early in life than later than life, but even subtle tweaking effects caused my experience can alter your overall impact as a person.
I’m in the sunset of my 20s (apparently people are surprised by this – yes, I look pretty young but I’m 29.) My model of how humans human in the modern world is the first 20 years are basically becoming a human. When you’re a kid, you’re missing fundamental gears that civilization and society rely on. Whether those gears being added is a good or bad thing really depends on your values and your memeplex – that’s not really what this discussion is about. By your early 20s, you have most, if not all of those societal gears and are generally regarded as a human in ways that are both legible and illegible. Again, I will gloss over the parts where some people do not get to take part in this social contract and this is frankly bullshit – society, unsurprisingly, has a lot of bugs and it is unclear if it is getting better or different about them. Regardless, the basic idea is that in your 20s, you’re a human, so get humaning. Humaning ideally involves exploration and finding a niche, through the 20s. A lot of things will fail, a lot of things will work, and you start rounding out the things intrinsic to you with experiences of the world that are not curated by people extremely similar to you. Once again, there’s a lot of alternatives to this, and the current state of society actually breaks this process in ways that are likely harmful to the machinery of progress and civilization, but this is not the focal point. By the time you’re in your 30s, you kind of get a choice point – in some cases, you’ll have had kids in your 20s (or younger) and have basically earmarked your 30s to keep doing that. In other cases, you’ll have waited and built enough stability and resources to do the kid thing from a more mature perspective. But in some cases, you will still not have kids. Your 30s becomes new game plus.
So, the difference between your 20s and 30s, provided you haven’t thoroughly burnt out your body through bad habits, is probably not all that dramatic. Ten years of life experience certainly has an impact, but overall, your energy levels will be a little lower and your neuroplasticity will be a little lower, but you’re still pretty much in your prime. (To be fair I mostly hope it is like this, but the people I know in their 30s seem to be experiencing this to some extent). It’s in some ways the ideal mix of fitness and wisdom that’s feasible for most people. You’ve lived some, but you also aren’t falling apart or slowing down too much. Having kids this late is a bit unusual (though more common as of late), but still a reasonable optimization to pass legacy on. Your values and memeplex should be somewhat set in, and making a tiny person who shares a lot of your neurotype is a great way to iterate on that memeplex. You are basically trading off most of your resources and life to do this – turning compound interest from your own life into compound interest for your child’s life, if all goes well. It seems like a bad trade upfront, but overall it’s another form of new game plus – playing an intergenerational game instead of an intragenerational game.
However, sometimes you opt not to have kids for some reason or another. Great, you have a ton of extra energy and resources and no responsibilities, right? Well, unfortunately, you have quite a few generations of compound interest going into your life and you can shirk that, but I think there’s something fundamentally sad about that. To clarify, this is specifically about the case where you are privileged enough to have choices at this stage of life – if you’re still stabilizing because things went wrong in one way or another, this duty doesn’t apply to you (and arguably, the duty of your forebears was shirked first). So, limiting to the case of facing your 30s from the perspective of someone who has options – there is still a duty, and it is harder. The statement being made is “All right, several generations of effort have culminated in me, and I think that I am ready to deposit this algorithm into the machine of civilization.” Fundamentally, the output of a human life is legacy, and choices made as you enter the middle of your life can be made with this in mind.
Now – your 30s is new game plus if you opt to not have kids, but it comes with additional responsibilities. What do you do with that? Well, in the ideal life, you’ve done most of your exploring in your 20s, you have a rough idea of your niche, and you use your 30s to dig deeper. Craft starts predominating more and more (I suspect in the past, craft predominated earlier.) This is where “who are you” and “what do you do” are relatively similar questions (though of course, they don’t have to be). The quantity of similar experiences locks out some other aspects of experience, but you there’s still a lot to be found with this approach. Going deep is a way to trade the energy and resources that have accumulated to form you into a legacy, because most people who have dedicated 10, 20, 30 years to a thing and aren’t just repeating year 1 over and over are in fact going places very few people have gone, and making a major impact on their craft. This contribution to the civilization engine is extremely valuable, if a bit more legible than other impacts. Sometimes you can use your 30s to explore, but even harder. With a resource base, you can expand your reference class of experiences and take more risks. You end up going places few people go if you continue to learn from your seeking behavior – and the impact you have is a little more illegible but might reveal territory civilization would do well to colonize. There are certainly other ways to use the excess you’re cashing in, but I’m mostly looking at the broad strokes – after all, I haven’t lived my 30s yet.
Overall, the fundamental takeaway I want this post to inspire is the concept of legacy (broadly defined) as the material human life force can be spent on. I suspect some things happen later in life that are also deeply important to contributing to the engine of civilization, but since I am not on the precipice of those things, it is more opaque to me. Probably around your 40s or so, it becomes important to have created access to new places for those coming into their 20s to explore, or to have invested enough into your children so that they have a strong baseline to explore from in the first place – beyond that, though, I don’t know. For now, my choice has been to cash out the resources that have been placed into me – it is my hope that any legacy I add to the soup of civilization is particularly me flavored.
Discussion questions – What do you think is the fundamental material you can buy with human life force? How important is legacy to you? What other models of legacy exist, besides children and cashing out? What other duties to civilization can a human bear