I have written a number of times about declining birthrates (see here, here, and here). I have dabbled in a variety of theories as I have pondered the causes of declining birthrates in our nation and throughout the world. Jonathan Last takes a shot at it in this Weekly Standard article.
While people were screaming a couple of decades ago about the impending population explosion (and some are still screaming), the world’s attitudes and behaviors with respect to child rearing underwent a major shift. Last says (basing his statement on calculations by population guru Phillip Longman), “By 2080, world population will probably have peaked around nine billion, after which it will sharply contract.” The impact on our nation will be the diminution of “populations, then economies, then military power, then world influence” (see here).
That says what is happening and what will happen. But why is it happening?
Last says that the multiple and complex factors include “the spread of abortion, contraception, divorce, and women's work opportunities,” as well as decreasing religious activity. He notes, “The birthrate in pious Utah is nearly double what it is in secular Vermont.”
Last also cites “host of other small, hidden influences,” that include social acceptance of homosexuality, increasing geographic mobility that causes extended family separation, women putting off childbearing until after fertility has peaked, (a trend that has a number of causing factors of itself), the decreasing economic value of children, and the increasing cost of child rearing.
Children were once a significant source of economic benefit, both while families were young, and again in old age. But the information age has changed all of that. “Small hands, so helpful during the agrarian and industrial ages, are useless in the information age.” Today, “Instead of children helping their families economically, one child can easily cost parents $1 million” in costs and foregone wages.
Last says, “Having children is more economically burdensome and less economically rewarding than it has ever been in the course of human history. We have reached a point where children are actually an impediment to economic and social success.”
Adult children also used to be the primary caregivers during declining years. They were, in essence, their parents’ retirement plan. Today, however, the cost of aging has been largely socialized. Last asks, “[W]hy bother going through the expense of having children, since you'll be provided for anyway?” Last cites Longman in saying, “[W]e still leave it to individuals to bear (in both direct expenses and forgone wages) nearly all the growing cost of raising the children who sustain the system, while allowing those individuals to retain a dwindling share of the value they create.”
Last’s article seems to primarily address the economic reasons for declining birthrates, although, he does mention some cultural matters as well. Of course, my foray into causality might be ill placed. Is it likely that understanding the reasons for declining birthrates will reverse that trend? In today’s world, people need to have cogent cultural and economic reasons to have children and to rear them. It’s hard, expensive work. In the absence of good reasons, many are opting for fewer or no children. Simply understanding the underlying factors will not reverse this trend.
A couple of decades ago people decried the unsustainable nature of an increasing population. Contrariwise, we must consider the unsustainable nature of our socialization of aging. A declining percentage of producers cannot hope to continue to provide adequate support for an increasing percentage of retirees. Even as we expand our Medicare system and ignore the impending implosion of our Social Security system in defiance of demographic realities, we continually push the problem into the future toward an increasingly dire situation.
What will the brave, new future hold for an aging population that lived their productive lives in a culture that failed to create enough children to provide for itself? This could easily produce a whole new and terrible meaning to the phrase ‘generation wars.’