Ross Douthat has identified a serious problem. American women aren’t having enough babies.
You might not see this as a problem. This is because you’re selfish. You live a decadent lifestyle, only concerned about the here and now, rather than the future. How selfish you are, not to have seven kids right now!
You may think I exaggerate, but I don’t. In a Sunday New York Times column and a petulant follow-up blog post, Douthat grieves the decision of women not to have as many children as humanly possible. To do anything else would be anti-feminist.
Likewise for readers who regard any talk about the moral weight of reproductive choices as a subtle attempt to reimpose the patriarchy: Can it really be that having achieved so much independence and autonomy and professional success, today’s Western women have no moral interest in seeing that as many women are born into the possibility of similar opportunities tomorrow? Is the feminist revolution such a fragile thing that it requires outright population decline to fulfill its goals, and is female advancement really incompatible with the goal of a modestly above-replacement birthrate?
Isn’t that a silly thing to write? Shouldn’t a writer in the New York Times be capable of recognizing that having kids is not for every woman, and that therefore demanding women en bloc have more kids is sort of anti-feminist? Is the feminist revolution so frightening to Douthat that he can see no way that we could have fewer kids per woman, and yet have a functional society?
It is true that birth rates are down in the West. That is not, however, a reason to panic. Lower birthrates are, for the most part, a sign of a prosperous society with educated women. To see why, one only needs to look at history.
The Wonderful Past
Humans adapt. That’s what we do. From our earliest days, before we were even Homo sapiens, we found ways to get along, to change with the times. This has served us well; it has allowed us to advance to the point where there are permanent settlements from the South Pole to the equator, spreading across the globe. Once, survival for our species was difficult, dangerous; today, for good or ill, humans are unquestionably the dominant force on the planet; our near-term survival is endangered most not by wild animals or starvation, but by our own technological advances.
This has not been the case for most of our history. Surveying the past is a grim endeavor. In 1600s London, more infants died than survived their first year. Even into the 1950s, that rate was still over 3 percent for Americans, and over 15 percent worldwide.
If the child survived, there was no small chance that they’d be without a mother; until the 20th century, it’s estimated that 1 percent of childbirths ended in the mother’s death. In the 1800s, thanks to poor sanitation, those rates spiked as high as 40 percent in some places.
Bearing children was arduous, and being born was likely as not to kill you, and there was no good means of avoiding pregnancy other than abstinence. Women were expected to bear children, and so mothers who managed to survive childbirth often bore many of them — in part because they didn’t want to be abstinent, in part because they often didn’t have the choice to be abstinent, and in part because it increased the odds that at least one or two of the kids would make it to adulthood, where they could try their luck at reproduction.
Happily, we do not live in that world any more. We have adapted by refining medicine, learning good treatments and sanitation and medicines and educating others about them. Today, the rate of death in childbirth is about 0.02 percent in the U.S., and fewer than 1 in 100 children die before their first birthday.
At the same time as all of this has happened, something else, even more remarkable, has occurred: women, free to chart their own reproductive destinies by reliable, safe birth control, have begun to achieve a level of equality unheard of in human history. Where women were once expected to serve as mothers first, now women have the ability to choose to delay childbirth, or forgo it altogether, at least in the developed world. Moreover, a woman who is childless isn’t a failure, because she can succeed in many different facets of society; her role is no longer restricted to motherhood.
Because we now allow women to decide for themselves whether and when to have children, and because those women now have more life options than parenting children, many mothers choose to have fewer children than they would have centuries ago.
Add these factors up, and it’s no wonder that, in the developed world, we are having fewer children per capita than we used to. Women have more control over their lives, and more choices about what they want to do. When they do have children, the kids are expected to grow up — we are shocked when a child dies, rather than sadly resigned to it as our ancestors were. People are healthier, live longer and have more options. Nothing could be bad about that, right?
The problem, as the neo-natalists see it, is that this decline in birthrate has changed something fundamental about society. For thousands of years, we were struggling just to survive one generation to the next. Our lives were centered around keeping enough children alive so that the species could carry on for another generation. There wasn’t much debate about whether you’d have kids; of course you would, and lots of them. That was necessary, at least for a long time.
Moreover, population was tied to national growth and prestige. Manpower was literally what powered humans. Certainly, we used animals and tools to help us in our jobs, but much of the power came straight from the sweat of people’s brows. The more people a country had, the more workers they had, the more they could build and do.
It’s not necessary anymore. As of early Thursday morning, there were an estimated 7,056,703,541 humans alive on Earth, and well over 300 million Americans. A fair number are in their 20s and 30s, and a fair number of them are going to have kids; the species’ survival into the next generation doesn’t look to be particularly in jeopardy.
This is a luxury that few species get, and it’s worth cheering. Still, that luxury means that society is no longer as focused on struggling to the next generation as we used to be. As Douthat laments:
After all, if children are not the only good in human life, they do seem like a fairly important one, no? Maybe even, dare one say, an essential one, at least in some quantity, if the pursuit of the wider array of human goods is to continue beyond our own life cycle? Or to put it another way, if we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had? And if that basic obligation exists in some form, then surely there comes a point when a culture in which it’s crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures can be aptly described as … what’s the word I’m looking for … decadent?
Well...what’s the word I’m looking for…no.
Rumors of Our Species’ Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
In 2007, there were 4.3 million children born in the U.S. That number has plummeted since, though; in 2000, it was all the way down to…4 million.
You may have noticed that this number is not that much less than the 2007 peak. You may also be aware that from 1965 through 2000, there were only 5 years where that many kids were born.
It’s true, there are fewer births per capita than any year on record. That statistic can be misleading, however. For one thing, people are living longer now than ever before. The more people over about 45 there are, the lower the per capita birth rate will look, simply because a large section of the population are not going to be having children. By looking at another measure, Total Fertility Rate, the birth rate looks similar to what it looked like in 1976. You may have noticed that almost two decades after that, the republic still endures.
Indeed, even if the birth rate was to continue at the current level indefinitely, U.S. Population would continue to grow. Yes, the birth rate has fallen slightly below replacement level, but immigration looks to keep our population growing slowly for the foreseeable future.
Douthat Has One Point
Douthat is right about one thing: part of the reason the birth rate has fallen has to do with economics. Not the economics of luxury that have allowed us to choose our destiny, but the economics of the Great Recession, which has made the real economic costs of children a problem.
Now that we have reliable birth control, people can choose when to have kids, and it’s not surprising that many people choose not to have kids in the middle of a recession. Birth rates are down in part because, as any parent knows, kids are expensive. If you’ve just lost your job and can’t get a loan for a new house, you’re not going to be eager to add another member to the family. It’s telling that the all-time low for Total Fertility Rate was in the mid-1970s, when the country was going through another economic bust.
There are enough kids to keep humanity going, and that means that kids have become, at some level, a luxury item. People don’t buy luxury items when they can’t meet basic needs. As the economy recovers, more children will be born; indeed, there will likely be something of a baby boomlet, as pent-up demand for children is realized.
That said, there are still other factors limiting the number of children born. We as a society have done poorly with work/life balance. America requires no paid maternity or paternity leave, and the corporate culture frowns on people who prioritize family over work. Child care is prohibitively expensive in much of the country; in Minneapolis, full-time day care for a three-year-old averages $640 a week, or more than $33,000 a year. The median household income in the state is $57,000 per year. Needless to say, if you’re a parent working full-time, and you don’t structure your work schedule so you have days off, you are hoping to break even — and if you’re not really netting any income, you’re left choosing between staying home — which is great, but doesn’t advance your career — or working, despite not bringing in any net income — which keeps your career going, but denies you time with your kids, and doesn’t help your bottom-line. The alternative is to simply choose not to have kids, or to limit the kids you have.
If you want people to have more children, you have to make it easier for them to care for their children. In countries like France and Sweden, where the social safety net is robust, paid parental leave is required, and day care is subsidized, birth rates are higher than the western average. This is not rocket science; if a couple that is on the fence about having kids knows that they’ll get time to stay home with the children, and be able to afford child care when they go back to work, then they’re much more likely to decide in favor.
Douthat acknowledges this, though his prescription — tax credits — is a very conservative approach. Nevertheless, giving parents financial support would lead to more children, he’s right about that.
But do we really want more children?
The Case for the Status Quo
I like kids. They’re really great. I have one. And obviously, humans need to keep having some children every generation; failure to do this will result in our species’ extinction, and that would obviously be bad.
There is no shortage of humans, however. There are over seven billion of us, and there are more today than yesterday. That mass of humanity has put a strain on our planet; quite aside from the obvious dangers presented by global warming, we’re running out of raw materials we use to keep our society going.
Stabilizing the population is, long-term, a good idea. Fewer people use fewer resources. There are more resources available for each person left to use. Yes, we still need children — and given how many people keep having kids, I suspect we’ll have enough.
Of course, that doesn’t mean those kids will be the “right” kind of kids. The subtext to the Douthat argument is always that the “right” kind of children — American children, preferably white — are not being born fast enough. If you hold to views of races as distinct, separate and different, this is a problem, but it’s primarily your problem.
We don’t live in the past. An ever-increasing population is no longer necessary to spur growth. We have made tremendous strides in automation, amazing advances in computing. More importantly, by freeing women to be the important part of society they always should have been, we’ve dramatically increased the number of people able to work to make the world a better place, without dramatically increasing the population.
We’ve managed to do all this without draconian measures, such as China’s disastrous, oppressive one-child policy. Instead, we’ve done it by increasing the ability of women to make decisions for themselves. If we drop the birth rate to zero, then yes, we’ll need to worry about it. Until then, I’m pretty comfortable with a population that is growing just fast enough to keep up.