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?
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