June 26, 2008
We're all armchair demographers. As I came to realize while researching a recent story on fertility panic, every soul aware that global birth rates are falling has a theory about why this is so. Surely women would want to bear children if the world were a better place, say the pundits, and as you may have noticed, pundits tend to have opinions on what would make the world better.
For all the theorizing, we still lack an adequate account of fertility differences within highly developed countries -- why the Brits procreate more than the Italians, why the Swedes outbreed the Singaporeans. Do the Japanese have low birth rates because the culture asks women to choose between motherhood and a career? Have the Swedes managed to fill maternity wards by plying mothers with free day-care, allowances and generous parental leave? Why do non-Hispanic white women in the United States choose to have more children than their counterparts in Canada?
I don't have the answers, but nor do I think low birth rates are quite the global crisis they're made out to be. Individual incomes can continue to rise as a nation's population falls, as long as individual productivity continues to increase. It was a mistake to structure social security along worker-to-retiree ratios, and we'll see more countries shift to individual accounts as this becomes apparent. (Certainly fertility incentives are not going to be an adequate response to the problem.)
We have managed the difficulties of a slowly growing population; if U.S. fertility drops below replacement, we can manage the challenges of a slowly shrinking one. And although closing the borders will not lead to economic collapse, we can and should greatly increase legal immigration.
These are practical concerns, but it's not the haunting fear of bouncing social security checks that drives most fertility panic. The sense I get from pronatalist films such as "Demographic Winter" -- a fundamentally dishonest portrayal of the "collapse" in birth rates -- is that traditionalists want to revert to the kind of society they think will produce more children. Like many Americans, they'd prefer a more patriarchal, child-centered, religious and sexually restrained America. But let's not mistake this as a wish for "cultural preservation"; indeed, it's a desire for a dramatic cultural shift away from now-entrenched liberal norms.
We are not practiced in the art of demographic forecasting. "The Population Bomb" hit bookstores exactly 40 years ago. In his book "Famine, 1975!", William Paddock helpfully laid out a system of triage for dealing with the massive famine about to destroy most of the human race. Between World War I and World War II, demographers predicted that U.S. birth rates were down for good. President Theodore Roosevelt condemned "willful sterility" and worried about white Protestants committing "race suicide." I'm not placing any bets on future birth rates, but I'm guessing that fretting over the state of American wombs will continue to be a national pastime.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
Your list of demographic bloopers is humbling indeed. It makes sense that countries will have to adapt to the economics of low fertility, though the process may get ugly. Will French workers switch to individual accounts without putting up a really nasty fight?
Still, we got into this business because we have opinions. And those opinions are based on premises, some explicit, some not. Let me try to dig out the bases of my own opinion that fertility decline is a matter that merits not panic -- we agree on that -- but careful reflection.
First, societies, like individuals, tend to want to reproduce themselves. In order to do that, they've had to organize themselves around the fact that, compared to the offspring of other species, the human infant has a long period of helplessness. That's why the family is often described as the primary social institution; it structures the care of future generations. The dependence of children is one of those social problems immune to technological progress and affluence, by the way. In fact, the more complex the society, the longer the period of childhood dependency, a truth that, as the mother of three kids in their 20s, I know firsthand.
Second, families socialize the next generation; that is, they model and teach children the habits and norms of their society. They also create the most powerful of human ties; those ties promote empathy and curb egotism in both adults and children.
So where do these premises lead us when we begin to think about low fertility? They suggest that the explosion in childlessness and one-child families is taking us into entirely new territory. What happens when, for most of a population, children are "not my problem"? Do people bother to care about schools, for instance? Playgrounds? The sleaziness of the culture? Are young adults then more inclined to see children as an unacceptable drain on their energies and pocketbooks? Will kids who grow up with no siblings, uncles, aunts or cousins have a diminished sense of social connectedness? Doubtless some people in the demographic-decline business want to bring back the patriarchy. But their misguided desire doesn't disqualify questions about narcissism in a post-family society.
You want to preserve "entrenched liberal norms." I do too. The problem is that only stable, strong families reproduce those norms. How do we create a society that supports both liberal individualism and the families that sustain it? I don't know how to resolve that paradox . But I suspect that countries in which childlessness and one-child families become the norm, as they already have in parts of Europe and Asia, will focus only on the former.
Kay Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal. Her most recent book is "Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post Marital Age."
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