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Is America's fertility decline a real problem?

Chances are you already have a strong opinion on this subject. There’s a great deal of noise, mostly but not wholly on the American right about the dangers of fertility decline. Jonathan Last’s book _What To Expect When No One is Expecting_ and Ross Douthat’s recent lament about American women’s TFR (total fertility rate – the reason men aren’t mentioned is that men don’t count in fertility calculations) is down to 1.87 children. Both writers predict fairly dire outcomes – economic stagnation a la Japan, a benefits crisis as insufficient new workers arrive. Moreover, for Douthat and other commentators like Rod Dreher, there’s a larger moral and cultural dimension that is absolutely critical:

If we call people today “decadent,” we have to ask how we measure that decay. That is, what’s the standard from which society is falling away? I think the answer is that we are falling away from a standard that sees life — particularly the creation of the next generation — as a primary good, and its creation and nurturing as normative. We have lost the idea, individually and collectively, that bearing and preparing the next generation is a right and proper telos for society, and that our role is to be stewards. Look, I am grateful that I live now, and not a hundred years ago. Among other advances, we have more choice than my parents’ generation did. They had more choice than their parents’ generation did. But when choice itself becomes more important than what is chosen, and self-fulfillment becomes more important than self-sacrifice, when fear and resentment over what we lack becomes more prominent than hope in and gratitude for what we have, then we enter into a spiritual and moral condition that may be rightly called decadent. It’s not for nothing that the Bible identifies wealth as having a high potential for being corrupting. And God knows we are wealthy.

Concerns about fertility and its implications are not a purely conservative thing – Megan McArdle points out that Europe’s demographica and fiscal crisis have profound links and that prescriptions for economic growth are likely to run up against demographic limits (which she rightly points out are much more complex than just “a dearth of workers”) unless nations are willing open to further immigration.

To see why, picture two neighboring towns, sharing all the same infrastructure and economic opportunities, with one key difference: their median age. In the first town, which I’ll call Morningburg, the average resident is 28. In the second, which I’ll call Twilight City, the average householder is 58.

Research indicates that even with all the same resources at their disposal, these two places look very different, and not just because one’s grocery store does a booming business in diapers while the other’s has a whole aisle devoted to Centrum Silver.

In Morningburg, young workers are rapid, plastic learners, eager to try out new ways of doing things. Since they’re still hoping to make a name for themselves and maybe get rich, they take a lot of risks. They push their managers to expand into new markets, propose iffy but innovative product lines, maybe start their own firm if the boss won’t let them advance fast enough. For the right opportunity, they’ll put in 18-hour days for a year or more.

In Twilight City, time horizons are shorter—people aren’t looking for projects that will make them rich or famous 20 years from now. They are interested in conserving what they have. That’s mostly rational, given Twilighters’ life stage; but studies show that older people worry more than younger ones about losses and are therefore especially averse to risk. Twilighters also tire more easily and need more time off for illness, so hours worked slowly decline each year. Wages stay steady, however; Twilighters, like most people, get very angry if you try to cut their salary.

That makes Twilighters expensive—so when they lose a job, finding another is tough. As a result, Twilighters tend to cling fiercely to their positions, and may block younger workers from getting a foothold in the labor market.

The difficulty of reemployment contributes to Twilight City’s surprisingly high, but somewhat deceptive, rate of entrepreneurship. Looking closely, we find that businesses there are disproportionately owned by semi-retirees who have hung out a consulting shingle, or become part-time caterers, or invested in a hobby business like an antique store. These businesses typically don’t have much growth potential, in part because cautious Twilighters won’t (or can’t) borrow money for expansion.

Morningburg is a boomtown, prone to periodic savage busts when the young strivers realize that those fur-bearing-trout farms they invested in aren’t going to make them rich. Twilight City is a less volatile place—but little change also means little growth.

A Pew report suggests that the fall in fertility that accompanies economic crises could be a vicious circle. While immigration can make up the different, many concerned commentators worry that relying primarily on immigration to take up the labor slack risks changing the culture in ways we might not prefer, and creates troubling racial and class dynamics – and concerns about widening immigration come from both directions, from those who worry about immigrants who don’t assimilate but transform and those who worry about creating a permanent underclass.

One thing to understand is that TFR is an emergent marker of population change, not a measure of how many children any individual woman is expected to have. It is sometimes used as a predictor of birth rates, but is not, in fact, a good one. Almost all the commentators on either side of the political spectrum fail to grasp this. That is, you (if you are female) and I do not have TFRs – we have a number of children. So when any of these writers talk about a lower TFR as something to be condemned or nurtured, they are shifting the terms of the conversation a little. This is one of the many reasons I tend to think that American discussions about demography are pretty bad – most people know so little about the subject that they make a mull of it.

On the left (more or less, these issues don’t line up wholly along political lines), there’s a general sense that fewer babies are good for the planet, particularly babies in the Global North where children disproportionally consume more and create more emissions living a middle-class lifestyle. The “fewer babies” camp tends to be divided between people who see population decline as in itself a good that justifies pretty much anything, those who see the freeing up of human labor from domestic and reproductive labor as a good thing, and those who advocate for a new, “better not bigger” economy based on all sorts of technical innovation (do I really need to link to one of those articles, they are dime a dozen.)

As you can probably imagine from my previous writings about this subject (dear to my heart, my doctoral dissertation was about demography, and the cultural obsession we have had for the last five thousand years with counting one another), my own analysis would be that there is right and wrong on both sides of this issue, but that no one quite gets the complexity.

It is not even clear right now whether fertility rates HAVE fallen significantly is ways that will matter over the long term, as Stephen Bronars points out. While I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion that younger women will eventually have more children than their older peers did, I do agree that it is too soon to jump to the conclusion that this trend will play out exactly as it has so far:

Some demographers use the total fertility rate as a proxy for the expected number of children born to women over their lifetimes. This approximation will only be accurate if women age 15-19 in 2011 expect to have the same fertility rate 15 to 20 years from now as women in their thirties have in 2011. The approximation will be inaccurate if women in 2011 are delaying childbirth longer than women from earlier birth cohorts.

In recent years the biggest declines in fertility occurred for women under the age of 25. In the past 20 years births to women age 15-19 are down 49% and births to women age 20-24 are down 26%. At the same time fertility rates for women in their thirties and forties are higher than ever. Since 2003 the fertility rate for women age 35-39 has been higher than for women age 15-19 and the gap is widening each year. Similarly, beginning in 2009 the fertility rate for women age 30-34 increased above the rate for women age 20-24. There is every reason to expect this gap to increase as women outnumber men in colleges and universities and account for 47% of the labor force.

Although it is likely that couples have delayed childbearing because of the economic downturn, there is no reason to assume that this will lead to a permanent decline in the number of children ever born to women over their lifetimes. The total fertility rate has consistently underestimated the number of children ever born at times when young women are delaying childbearing longer than women from earlier birth cohorts.

Time will tell whether the low TFRs of the last few years remain in place as the next generation of young women reach middle age, but it is also the case that that HAS been the case in much of Europe and in Japan, so it is certainly plausible that we will not be replacing ourselves.

It should not surprise readers that like Douthat and Dreher, I agree there is a deep moral and cultural element to our relationship to children and reproduction, and actually, I think decadence is a fine word to use for this. Fundamentally, we are in many ways a decaying society and it stretches the imagination to believe that our reproductive habits are not also affected by that decay – EVEN IF the environmental consequences are positive. That is, remember that things can mean more than one thing – we will come back to this.

The shift that we’ve made over the last decades towards children as an economic burden, and towards identifying child care and domestic labor as an externalized economic burden to be limited IS a troubling change – even if the results, fewer children consuming fewer resources are in some ways good. We have done it at too high a price – turning children into materialists and expressions of our larger materialism, and transforming our narrative about domestic labor including childrearing into one where we are falsely told that family labor is mindless drudgery and we can be “freed” by employment in the public economy. These things are not necessarily true, and we shouldn’t maintain that they are, even if they serve some useful purposes.

This does not mean that I believe that American-born women must have more children, nor does it mean that I think women’s wombs ought to be the territory of public policy initiatives (in fact, I’ve stated before I think the state should have NOTHING to do with reproduction, neither incentivizing or disincentivizing it.) I do, however, think that there’s more going on in our reproductive decisions than simply purely personal issues, lack of subsidized maternity leave or the fact that women finally “freed” themselves from reproductive labor. As I wrote in this essay, the shift of children from economic benefit to economic burden has really complicated resonances, both good and ill. Ultimately what I term our “demographic imagination” – our way of thinking about reproduction and numbers – shapes us in deep and complex terms:

The totalizing world view that accompanies industrial modernism says that children are fundamentally one thing, and one alone – they are an economic commodity, something that you have if you can afford them, something that small nuclear families are responsible for alone. They display your status in how they dress, what school you send them to, what activities they do, what college they get into, what sports they play, and they are increasingly, aware of their status a commodity and invested in it – that is, our children increasingly see themselves as here to shop.

One thing I think is always true about the nature of demographic imagination, that multiple perceptions can be simultaneously true. Thus, when I had my first child he was simultaneously my parents’ first, blessed grandchild, another child added to the consumptive west’s absorption of resources, revenge upon the Nazis who tried to exterminate my husband’s family, a disabled child probably destined to consume more resources than he produces, a candidate for the 6 billionth person born on the planet (we crossed that threshold shortly before his birth – a little girl from India won the dubious prize), our adored and deeply desired son, a gift from G-d…and a host of other things. There is no point in trying to filter out which of these things is “true” – they are, for good or ill, all true in some ways, and through some lenses. And none of them is all the truth – but that doesn’t mean we can full extricate these simultaneous perceptions. Industrial society, however, tells us constantly that there is only one meaning – that children exist in only one valence, as expressions of status, or at best, costs to us.

Nations, peoples, regions after all, have demographic imaginations as well, and they tend to try, with varying degrees of success, to superimpose them over the imaginings of smaller groups. The stories we tell ourselves personally and collectively shape our policies. The world we get if we see ourselves as a beleagured outpost of justice in a world surrounded by rapidly breeding barbarians is very different than the one we get if we see ourselves as integrated with the surrounding populations, able easily to sustain ourselves by opening our borders. A small indigenous people, or religious faith, losing its children to assimilation may be told that the world is overpopulated, and simultaneously and accurately experience themselves as dramatically underpopulated. Our military, economic and social priorities depend on population – both literally, and in our perceptions. Ultimately, our worldview about reproduction, population, biology matters in a whole host of ways. And on this subject, I think we have managed to get ourselves into a particularly troubling way of thinking about children – troubling no matter how you look at it. That is, we’ve transformed children from economic assets to burdens, from beings who are fundamentally productive to beings who are fundamentally consumptive of resources.

The materialist shift that we’ve made over the last century in our view of children and reproduction has enormous consequences, and conservatives who see this as troubling are not wrong about the moral dimension, although they may be wrong about both causes and solutions – as may commentators who responded to Douthat by raging that reproduction is a purely private decision – because, of course, while it is a private matter between individual couples, no one makes those choices in a cultural or economic or social vacuum.

As always, demographics are just a lot more complicated than we understand. First of all, while we like to attribute growth in prosperity and economic expansion to population growth, one of the important take-aways of the history of our boom cycles may be that those things don’t actually matter as much as we think they do. Yes, we need workers – but underlying the reproductive growth have been two other things that are less often considered. First, you can probably guess I’m going to point to energy flows – the abundant, extraordinarily cheap fossil fuels that ultimately generated a lot of this economic growth, while also simultaneously devaluing individual human labor.

The other is that reproductive rates alone have never been sufficient to create real booms – yes, we had more babies, but fossil fuel energies also depended hugely on moving large populations from the informal economy to the formal one. If a higher birth rate was sufficient, we shouldn’t have needed to also move farm populations off the farms in the US into the cities to provide industrial labor, then move women into the industrial workplace, and then move large chunks of the rural population of the global south into the factories. Higher or lower reproductive rates among already industrialized populations have NEVER been sufficient to support a period of long-term high economic growth, even with cheap energy flows we are unlikely to duplicate – the industrial economy has an insatiable appetite for human labor (which it functionally devalues) and fossil fuels.

The truth is that no matter how many babies people have, we’re probably never going to see the kind of economic growth that accompanied the fossil fuel boom. While McArdle is absolutely correct that aging populations present real problems, and that we are facing a number of demographic challenges (a “care” crisis as a poorer society has to care for an increasing number of elderly and disabled people without externalizing their care, a demographic crisis in agriculture as population growth and climate change push us to needing more farmers just as our agricultural population hits the end of their working life – these are just two I’ve written about previously). If, as seems likely, economic stagnation is a given anyway, that only increases the challenges of a society with an aging population.

At the same time, the conservative viewpoint, which generally sees America in compative isolation, and fails to see reproduction and its environmental consequences in a global context is missing an important part of the picture – yes, there are enormous challenges to an aging population, but far greater are the impacts of a growing one. Immigration presents enormous challenges, but ultimately the one thing we have in abundance in a planet that will reach 9 or 10 billion is human labor. Moreover, the very fact that populations DO drop in fertility as they assimilate into American culture (Last projects that American Hispanic immigrants will drop below replacement rate, dropping the TFR still further and creating a softer version of China’s one-child policy) suggests that assimilation is happening – that our fears of losing our American-ness in waves of immigration are no more real than the same fears were in the late 19th century.

Last’s claim that we are headed to an implied one-child policy seems to me correct, without China’s enforcement – indeed, quite a few nations have lower TFRs than China does without their policies including nations as varied as Singapore, Switzerland, Poland, Georgia, Cuba, South Korea, Albania and Germany. Thailand, Lebanon, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Tunisia and Iran all hover below replacement, suggesting that the overall trend towards lower fertility is not merely a developed-world trend, but a global trend affecting a large portion (but not all of it, TFR declines have stalled in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of India) of the world.

The truth is that we can go back to the idea of demographic imagination to figure out whether this is a blessing or a curse – it is simultaneously yet another major challenge to add to a growing list of enormous challenges that will transform our society in ways that cannot be understated. The impact of our demographic choices should not be minimized. It is also an act that overall reduces the environmental impact of the global north, which is good. That those things can be simultaneously true is simply the reality of demographics – in fact that multiple things ALWAYS are simultaneously true in our demographic culture and personal reproductive choices is one thing that our black and white culture seems unable to get its mind around.

In the end, neither our environmental predicament nor the desire for future economic growth is what motivates people to have children or not have them, for the most part. That doesn’t mean no one makes reproductive choices on those grounds, but most often what motivates us is a complicated intersection of personal, social, biological and economic drives. That is, we will never stop having children to save the planet or have them to save the economy, so on some level, the discussion is moot – change comes from

What does the future hold for fertility? That’s a really good question. America came out of historic lows in TFR during the Great Depression into another boom cycle, when a woman’s average TFR jumped dramatically. Is the energy there for one more (however short) boom and bust cycle, or are we headed into a longer term downswing? Will we be Russia, whose demographic collapse during and after the societal collapse has largely held stable, creating a new normal of small families and large older populations, or in a new kind of poverty, will we see a shift back to viewing children as a reproductive asset, in a world where human labor replaces fossil fuels?

Ultimately we don’t know – what we do know is that the drivers of reproductive and social change are undergoing dramatic shifts – our economic situation, our access to health care and reproductive medicine, and our larger sexual culture. We can expect that as those drivers change, we will see change in how we see fertility, family, children, and that those changes will simultaneously create burdens and solutions. Like problems of food and energy, the answer is usually “it is complicated.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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