Is Birthrate Decline a Bad Thing?

birthrate-declineI’m going to comment on the New York Times opinion piece The End of Babies by Anna Louie Sussman.

In the fall of 2015, posters appeared around Copenhagen. One, in pink letters laid over an image of chicken eggs, asked, “Have you counted your eggs today?” A second — a blue-tinted close-up of human sperm — inquired, “Do they swim too slow?” The posters, part of a campaign funded by the city to remind young Danes of the quiet ticking of their biological clocks, … drew criticism for equating women with breeding farm animals.

I agree these ads seem unlikely to encourage young people to want to have children, but saying that they’re equating women with chickens seems like faux outrage to me. Did anyone complain that men were being shamed for being infertile? No? I thought not.

The timing, too, was clumsy: For some, encouraging Danes to make more babies while television news programs showed Syrian refugees trudging through Europe carried an inadvertent whiff of ugly nativism.

I don’t blame Danes for wanting their native population produce more children, rather than importing unskilled refugees from another culture who don’t speak the language and will likely take more from the welfare system than they contribute in taxes. Calling nativism ugly doesn’t change the fact that it’s practical.

Dr. Soren Ziebe, the head of Denmark’s largest public fertility clinic, thinks these kinds of messages, fraught as they are, are sorely needed. Denmark’s fertility rate has been below replacement level — that is, the level needed to maintain a stable population — for decades. The decline is not solely the result of more people deliberately choosing childlessness: Many of his patients are older couples and single women who want a family, but may have waited until too late.

Like the grasshopper in the famous fable, they spent the summer of their youth chasing pleasure or career, not realizing that when the winter of their infertility arrived, they would be starved for children and family.

If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months’ paid family leave and highly subsidized day care. Women under 40 can get state-funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate, at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.

Paid family leave, subsidized day care, and “free” in vitro fertilization may improve fertility marginally, but even paying women to have children hasn’t returned countries like Japan and Russia to the replacement rate of 2.1.

Declining fertility typically accompanies the spread of economic development, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women, increasing acceptance of the choice to be child-free, and rising standards of living.

It is a good thing. In the short term, we may have some adjusting to do, but in the long term, we will need to reduce the world population from its likely peak of 11 billion at the turn of the century.

At its worst, though, it reflects a profound failure: of employers and governments to make parenting and work compatible; of our collective ability to solve the climate crisis so that children seem a rational prospect; of our increasingly unequal global economy. In these instances, having fewer children is less a choice than the poignant consequence of a set of unsavory circumstances.

Nothing employers or the government can do will making parenting and work compatible; they are fundamentally at odds. Solving the “climate crisis” requires reducing birth rates. The unequal global economy cannot be equalized at the level that we in the west expect without reducing birth rates.

Decades of survey data show that people’s stated preferences have shifted toward smaller families. But they also show that in country after country, actual fertility has fallen faster than notions of ideal family size. In the United States, the gap between how many children people want and how many they have has widened to a 40-year high. In a report covering 28 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women reported an average desired family size of 2.3 children in 2016, and men wished for 2.2. But few hit their target. Something is stopping us from creating the families we claim to want. But what?

In urban areas, two incomes are almost a necessity, at least until couples are established. This mean that families are started late. With the high cost of day care, couples can’t afford to have too many children.

There are as many answers to this question as there are people choosing whether to reproduce. At the national level, what demographers call “underachieving fertility” finds explanations ranging from the glaring absence of family-friendly policies in the United States to gender inequality in South Korea to high youth unemployment across Southern Europe. It has prompted concerns about public finances and work force stability and, in some cases, contributed to rising xenophobia. But these all miss the bigger picture.

I agree these “answers” don’t fit the big picture. Family-friendly policies have been shown to have very little impact, gender inequality correlates to higher birthrates, not lower, and high youth unemployment does not lead to low birthrates in the third world.

Our current version of global capitalism — one from which few countries and individuals are able to opt out — has generated shocking wealth for some, and precarity for many more. These economic conditions generate social conditions inimical to starting families: Our workweeks are longer and our wages lower, leaving us less time and money to meet, court and fall in love. Our increasingly winner-take-all economies require that children get intensive parenting and costly educations, creating rising anxiety around what sort of life a would-be parent might provide. A lifetime of messaging directs us toward other pursuits instead: education, work, travel.

The third world also has many with precarious financial straights, long work weeks and low wages, yet has high birth rates. In the west, one can live on government assistance, and yet still women choose not to bear children. Children do not require intensive parenting and costly educations, though they may well benefit from them. Messaging can be ignored, but is only likely to be if one understands the alternatives.

These economic and social dynamics combine with the degeneration of our environment in ways that hardly encourage childbearing: Chemicals and pollutants seep into our bodies, disrupting our endocrine systems. On any given day, it seems that some part of the inhabited world is either on fire or underwater.

For young, healthy women, I don’t believe pollution is a major cause of infertility.

It seems clear that what we have come to think of as “late capitalism” — that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities — has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive. And yes, it is even happening in Denmark.

Greed is hostile to reproduction.

Danes don’t face the horrors of American student debt, our debilitating medical bills or our lack of paid family leave. College is free. Income inequality is low. In short, many of the factors that cause young Americans to delay having families simply aren’t present.

Student debt is very much a first world problem, and can be avoided by self educating or choosing a traditional lifestyle in trades. Young people don’t normally have debilitating medical bills, though they may have poor access to healthcare. College is not free in Denmark. It is paid for by very high taxes. The point that Danes have a larger welfare state than Americans yet still have declining birthrates points to the fact that socialism will not increase fertility.

Even so, many Danes find themselves contending with the spiritual maladies that accompany late capitalism even in wealthy, egalitarian countries. With their basic needs met and an abundance of opportunities at their fingertips, Danes instead must grapple with the promise and pressure of seemingly limitless freedom, which can combine to make children an afterthought, or an unwelcome intrusion on a life that offers rewards and satisfactions of a different kind — an engaging career, esoteric hobbies, exotic holidays.

First world problems.

There are, to be sure, many people for whom not having children is a choice, and growing societal acceptance of voluntary childlessness is undoubtedly a step forward, especially for women. But the rising use of assisted reproductive technologies in Denmark and elsewhere (in Finland, for example, the share of children born via assisted reproduction has nearly doubled in a little more than a decade; in Denmark, it accounts for an estimated one in 10 births) suggests that the same people who see children as a hindrance often come to want them.

Making something that could be done cheaply and naturally an expensive option. By 40, the chance of getting pregnant naturally each month is just 5%, and the average woman has only 50000 eggs left. As these are released 1000 per month, this means a forty year old has about 4 years before becoming infertile. If a woman chooses to delay having children and then pays for IVF, it is her choice, but I would argue it’s a poor one.

Kristine Marie Foss, now 50, always dreamed of finding love, but none of her serious boyfriends lasted. She spent most of her 30s and 40s working as an interior designer, created several social networks (including one for singles, “before it was cool to be single”), and expanded and deepened her friendships. It wasn’t until she was 39 that she realized it might be time to start thinking seriously about a family. Ms. Foss is now the mother of a 9-year-old and 6-year-old via a sperm donor. She has joined the ranks of what Danes call “solomor,” or single mother by choice, a cohort that has been growing since 2007, when the Danish government began covering IVF for single women.

Waiting this long is risky. Fertility can be prolonged with expensive freezing of ova and IVF, but the chances of conceiving are worse than for a young woman conceiving naturally. Tax money spent on offering IVF to single women is money taken away from other causes, such as helping children, the poor, and the elderly. This seems highly irresponsible.

There are those who have always sought to lay the blame for declining fertility, in some way, on women — for their individual selfishness in eschewing motherhood, or for their embrace of feminism’s expansion of women’s roles. But the instinct to explore life without children is not restricted to women. In Denmark, one out of five men will never become a parent, a figure that is similar in the United States.

Historically, far more women than men have passed their genes on. One man can fertilize many women, but a women can only bear a few children in her lifetime. Men are able to conceive children naturally far into middle age, meaning they have the luxury to postpone fatherhood for far longer than women can put off motherhood.

Are all these options not precisely what capitalism promised us? We were told that equipped with the right schooling, work ethic and vision, we could have professional success and disposable income that we could use to become the most interesting, most cultured, most toned versions of ourselves. We learned that doing these things — learning, working, creating, traveling — was rewarding and important.

Individualism has little to do with capitalism. Freedom and the right to pursue happiness means having to choose what it is that will bring happiness.

Trent MacNamara says that having children may appear to be no more than a “quixotic lifestyle choice” absent other social cues reinforcing the idea that parenting connects people “to something uniquely dignified, worthwhile and transcendent.” Those cues are increasingly difficult to notice or promote in a secular world in which a capitalist ethos — extract, optimize, earn, achieve, grow — prevails. Where alternative value systems exist, however, babies can be plentiful. In the United States, for example, communities of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons and Mennonites have birthrates higher than the national average.

Having children will always be an instinctual imperative. This difference today is that there are so many ways of preventing or aborting the consequences of the reproductive act. Is parenting dignified, worthwhile, and transcendent? To some, certainly, but it is hard to argue that merely becoming a parent confers dignity, worth, or transcendence of the human condition. The “alternative value systems” noted are all systems where the individual lacks freedom. I.e. they are regressive systems, from a liberal point of view.

Lyman Stone, an economist who studies population, points to two features of modern life that correlate with low fertility: rising “workism” — a term popularized by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson — and declining religiosity. “There is a desire for meaning-making in humans,” Mr. Stone told me. Without religion, one way people seek external validation is through work, which, when it becomes a dominant cultural value, is “inherently fertility reducing.”

Men have always sought external validation and internal purpose in their work, without reducing fertility. When women do the same, they naturally defer bearing children.

Denmark, he notes, is not a workaholic culture, but is highly secular. East Asia, where fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, is often both. In South Korea, for example, the government has introduced tax incentives for childbearing and expanded access to day care. But “excessive workism” and the persistence of traditional gender roles have combined to make parenting more difficult, and especially unappealing for women, who take on a second shift at home.

Tax incentives have been tried in Japan and Russia as well, and while they increase the birthrate by a marginal amount, they have failed to do more than slow the decline. Too many women are forced to choose work just to make ends meet. How many of them are happy doing so? This is the dark side of the freedom that the birth control pill brought.

If Denmark illustrates the ways that capitalist values of individualism and self-actualization can nonetheless take root in a country where its harshest effects have been blunted, China is an example of how those same values can sharpen into competition so cutthroat that parents speak of “winning from the starting line,” that is, equipping their children with advantages from the earliest possible age. One scholar told me this can even encompass timing conception to help a child in school admissions.

Competitive nature is part of the Chinese culture. China is the farthest you can get from being a culture of individualism and self-actualization, give that it is controlled by a totalitarian communist regime.

The Chinese government has long sought to engineer its population, reducing quantity in order to improve “quality.” These efforts are increasingly focused on what Susan Greenhalgh, a professor of Chinese society at Harvard, describes as “cultivating global citizens” through education, the means by which Chinese people and the nation as a whole can compete in the global economy.

I’d rather not be part of an engineered population.

By the 1980s, she said, child-rearing in China had become professionalized, shaped by the pronouncements of education, health and child psychology experts. Today, raising a quality child is not just a matter of keeping up with the latest child-rearing advice; it’s a commitment to spending whatever it takes.

Manufacturing obedient workers for the state.

Joyce Yuan, a 27-year-old Beijing-based interpreter, was quick to note China’s harsh economic conditions, a factor that rarely, if ever, came up in Denmark. She cited, for instance, the high cost of urban living. “Everything is super expensive,” she said, and quality of life, especially in big cities, “is extremely low.”

Sounds terrible.

The factors suppressing fertility in China are present throughout the country: In rural areas, where 41 percent of its nearly 1.4 billion citizens still live, there is little enthusiasm for second children, and policymakers can seemingly do even less about it. In Xuanwei Prefecture, after the central government announced in 2013 that couples in which one spouse was an only child could apply for permission to have a second baby, just 36 people sought such approval in the first three months — in a region of around 1.25 million people. “Local family planning officials blamed economic pressure on young couples for the low take-up,” the authors of a study on China and fertility wrote.

This is good news for the environment. The sooner the world population stops growing and begins to decline, the sooner we’ll be able to live sustainably.

In urban settings, the opportunities for education and enrichment are more abundant, and the sense of competition more intense. But Chinese couples everywhere are responsive to the pressures of the country’s hyper-capitalist economy, where setting a child down the right path could mean life-changing opportunities, while heading down the wrong one means insecurity and struggle.

China is not capitalist. There may be competition, but it is not free. There is still an authoritarian party in tight control over all opportunities.

In my own experience as an American, I am one of the lucky ones: Thanks to scholarships, and my mother’s tremendous sacrifices, I graduated from college without debt. Thus unencumbered, I spent most of my 20s working and studying overseas. Along the way, I got two master’s degrees, and built a rewarding, if not especially remunerative, career. In my late 20s, I learned about egg freezing. It seemed like a secret weapon I could use to stave off the decision of if and when to have kids — an absolution, of sorts, for spending these years abroad and not searching terribly hard for a partner. At 34, I finally underwent the procedure. Last year, I did another round.

Sounds fairly typical for a woman who achieves two post graduate degrees. This is not the norm.

According to my back-of-the envelope calculations, I should have $200,000 saved before having a child. I am fully aware that people far worse off than me have children all the time. I know that even the prospect of a pre-pregnancy savings target vaults me firmly into the realm of tragicomic middle-class absurdity. I am resolutely not saying that if you don’t have this (or any sum of) money, you should reconsider children.

If you have a partner who can support you, you don’t need to save this much before having a child.

Rather, this number is a hybrid — an acknowledgment of the financial realities of single parenthood, but also the arithmetic crystallization of my anxieties around parenthood in our precarious era. To me, it demonstrates that even with my abundant privileges, it can still feel so risky, and on some days impossible, to bring a child into the world. And from the dozens of conversations I’ve had in reporting this essay, it’s clear these anxieties are shaping the choices of many others, too.

Planning on single parenthood is again not the norm. Why would you do this?

Where did I get the $200,000 figure from? First, there’s at least $40,000 for two rounds of IVF. (That I am contemplating this route also speaks to the obstacles of dating under late capitalism — but that’s a subject for a different article.) Thousands of dollars in hospital bills for a birth, provided it’s not a complicated one.

You chose to put off dating. When you are young, the obstacles are much smaller.

As a freelancer, I wouldn’t be eligible for paid leave, so I’d either need child care (easily $25,000 a year or more) until the child starts prekindergarten, or have enough saved to support us while I’m not working. I could sell my studio apartment, but homeownership is a key means by which parents pay for college, and I am as terrified of relinquishing this asset as I am of launching a child into the job market sans higher education credentials. On some days, I tell myself I’m being responsible by waiting. On other days, I wonder how this anxiety over my present might crowd out the future I envision.

Why have a child if you aren’t even going to raise it?

The point is not really whether $200,000 is reasonable; it is that the very notion of attaching a dollar figure to an experience as momentous as parenthood is a sign of how much my mind-set has been warped by this system that leaves us each so very much on our own, able to avail ourselves of only what we can pay for.

Everyone should make sure they are committed to parenthood, including dealing with the expense, before committing to it. The “system” is not at fault.

For decades, people with as much good fortune as I have were relatively immune to these anxieties. But many of the difficulties that have long faced working-class women, and especially women of color, are trickling up. These women have worked multiple jobs without stability or benefits, and raised children in communities with underfunded schools or poisoned water; today, middle-class parents, too, are time-starved, squeezed out of good school districts, and anxious about plastic and pollution.

Since birth control arrived, allowing more and more women to delay having children, fewer are willing to sacrifice their lifestyle in exchange for raising a family. As the rewards of fatherhood have been eroded, fewer men are interested in doing so.

In the 1990s, black feminists, facing the conditions above, developed the analytical framework known as reproductive justice, an approach that goes beyond reproductive rights as they are usually understood — access to abortion and contraceptives — to encompass the right to have children humanely: to “have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities,” as the collective SisterSong put it.

Safe and sustainable communities have to be built and maintained. They are not a right, but a privilege.

Incremental improvements like paid parental leave are only a partial fix for our current crisis, a handful of crumbs when our bodies and souls require a nourishing meal.

Who pays for parental leave? If it’s employers, we should expect them to avoid hiring people who are likely to take advantage of it. If it’s the tax payer, the burden of ever increasing entitlements is swollen further.

The problem, to be clear, is not really one of “population,” a term that since its earliest use, according to the scholar Michelle Murphy, has been a “profoundly objectifying and dehumanizing” way to discuss human life. Hundreds of thousands of babies are born on this planet every day; people all over the world have shown they are willing to migrate to wealthier countries for jobs. Rather, the problem is the quiet human tragedies, born of preventable constraints — an employer’s indifference, a belated realization, a poisoned body — that make the wanted child impossible.

Employer’s are not responsible for helping you have children, unless forced to do so by government regulation. Poisoning is something the government should be preventing. Belated realization is on you.

The crisis in reproduction lurks in the shadows, but is visible if you look for it. It shows up each year that birthrates plumb a new low. It’s in the persistent flow of studies linking infertility and poor birth outcomes to nearly every feature of modern life — fast-food wrappers, air pollution, pesticides. It is the yearning in your friends’ voices as they gaze at their first child, playing in their too-small apartment, and say, “We’d love to have another, but …” It is the pain that comes from lunging toward transcendence and finding it out of reach.

And yet, ideally, we want to reduce the global population.

Seen from this perspective, the conversation around reproduction can and should take on some of the urgency of the climate change debate. We are recognizing nature’s majesty too late, appreciating its uniqueness and irreplaceability only as we watch it burn.

Over population is the direct cause of climate change.

“I see a lot of parallels between this tipping point that people feel in their intimate lives, around the question of reproduction under capitalism, also playing out in broader existential conversations about the fate of the planet under capitalism,” said Sara Matthiesen, a historian at George Washington University whose forthcoming book examines family-making in the post-Roe v. Wade era. “It seems like more and more people are being pressed to this place of, ‘O.K., this system of value is literally going to kill us.’”

Not having children does not kill you. Having the freedom to choose what you want to do with your life is good. The tragedy of the commons, which freedom often leads to, becomes inevitable when the population cannot be sustained by the environment.

Conversations about reproduction and environmental sustainability have long overlapped. Thomas Malthus worried that population growth would outstrip the food supply. The 1970s saw the emergence of ecofeminism. Since the 1990s, reproductive justice groups have sought a better planet for all children. Today’s BirthStrikers disavow procreation “due to the severity of the ecological crisis.”

Malthus failed to foresee the increases in food production brought about by commercial fertilizers. These fertilizers are produced from petrochemicals and are a key contributor to global warming. Eventually, if we continue to push the system past its carrying capacity, it will fail catastrophically.

The first step is renouncing the individualism celebrated by capitalism and recognizing the interdependence that is essential for long-term survival. We depend on our water supply to be clean, and our rivers depend on us not to poison them. We ask our neighbors to watch our dogs or water our plants while we’re away, and offer our help in kind. We hire strangers to look after our children or aging parents, and trust in their compassion and competence. We pay taxes and hope those we elect spend that money to keep roads safe, schools open, and national parks protected.

I agree that we need to address the destruction of the environmental commons. The best way to do that is by making sure that we reduce the population to a sustainable number.

As I reflected on the immaterial gifts I like to think I inherited from [my father], it became clear I craved genetic continuity, however fictitious and tenuous it might be. I recognized then something precious and inexplicable in this yearning, and glimpsed how devastating it might be to be unable to realize it. For the first time, I felt justified in my impulse to preserve some little piece of me that, in some way, contained a little piece of him, which one day might live again.

How is genetic continuity fictitious? The yearning is a primal instinct. Even the totalitarian Maoists were only willing to try to hold their people to one child per couple, and that was largely unsuccessful. Lamenting the falling birthrate while simultaneously bewailing the damage overpopulation does to the environment shows the cognitive dissonance that our deepest instincts can cause us to indulge in when confronted by facts.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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