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Monday, November 5, 2012

Is Low Fertility Destroying Our Civilization?

My thanks to Duane Miller for pointing me to an article by Jonathan V. Last of the Weekly Standard, who worries that low fertility in America is "undermining our civilization." Last's analysis starts with data from the 2010 Current Population Survey (he refers to the data as coming from CDC, but links us to the Census data) which show that among women 40-44 (who for the most part are at the end of their childbearing), 18.8 percent are childless and 18.5 percent have only one child. He then concludes that since nearly 40 percent of women are having no children or only one child we are "slowly bifurcating into a society where we have two classes of adults: parents and non-parents." This is, of course, a bit on the sensational side since I can guarantee you that having one child still makes you a parent! Furthermore, the increase in childlessness has been very gradual. As far back as 1994, for example, the Current Population Survey showed that 17.5 percent of women aged 40-44 were childless and 17.1 had only one child. He continues to lament about low fertility in the US, blaming it first on old-age entitlements:
The economic school says that macroeconomic changes in American life have made having babies less important. As we moved from agriculture to industry, from rural life to urban life, children became both less helpful and more expensive. What's more, the advent of Social Security and then Medicare inserted the government into family life by giving the state responsibilities for taking of the elderly that children once bore.
What the entitlement state meant was that for the first time in history, people didn't need children to care for them in their old age. The government would do it. Socializing this cost created a market distortion. Children are expensive to raise and everybody gets the government's geezer goodies, whether they pay for the cost of creating new taxpayers or not. So only the suckers have kids.
The idea that people have children in order to be cared for in old age is largely nonsense. Social Security was put in place partly to get older people out of the labor market in the Depression but very importantly to deal with the fact that the poverty rate was very high among the elderly--children were not taking care of their parents, no matter what Last may believe was going on back then. Most people understand that saving for your own old age is a lot less expensive than raising a child. At the same time, it is almost certainly the case that economic development and urbanization in this country led to a steep rise in the opportunity costs of children, leading young people to seek ways to gain more control over their reproduction. This latter set of issues is what Last refers to as "cultural explanations."
What happened beginning in 1970 was a massive change in American culture. Just to tick off a few of the most obvious changes: abortion, contraception, marriage, divorce, and religious practice. Each of these subjects underwent titanic shifts beginning in or about 1970. And as our relationship to them changed, so did our behavior with regards to family life.
It is my view that Last has this backwards. It was not that culture changed and then family behavior changed. Rather, the very forces that have led to decades of fertility decline in the US have created the demand for greater control over one's life--including choosing the number of children, when to get married, and when not to be married. Most people want neither the government nor the church telling them what to do in these matters. 


  1. Thank you for your analysis. I am wondering if any government anywhere has tried tying retirement benefits to birth rates. I mean, giving lower retirement benefits to people with no children or one child. I don't think that this could ever become law in the USA, but I do recall hearing the idea floated occasionally.

  2. I have never heard of such a scheme actually being implemented. Retirement benefits (public and private) are usually tied to employment history, not to family structure.

  3. Maybe finally the message is getting thru. I am in a depressed phase but with all my faculties and love for books intact (heck its reallly all I got!) and leafing thru the 'western cannon' of mavericks and original geniuses since the days of Hesiodotus or Homeratio or whoever, I am seeing many familiar intellectual figures in a new light! I am astounded that Schopenhauer was the biggest 19c philosopher, or that Camus won a Nobel. because I have slowly nibbled at their philosophies in essays and blog posts, not laid out in wandering tomes. Their pessimism and deprecation of life really sticks out to me as non-mainstream, and I now believe that nature 'had us by the balls", such that the only thing that had any meaning in an arduous, hazardous, meaningless life, was...romance, ardour, sex. But since no-one wants to talk to women as sex dolls and brood mares, or tell kids they were incidental to irrational urges, but can be free labor/retirement fund now that they are here to enjoy this blessing, life, our long lineage of peasants hide-bound to custom and superstition got us here.
    As an African, I find that the colonialists have thoroughly discredited any form of ancestral worship in my mind, and I really only have as much academic interest in my heritage as in western europe's, or edo period japan, etc though i am really an academically-inclined sort. SO this worldview seems underwhelming, and with free love and birth control, the only reason to have kids now is a living retirement fund. But if it gets to where I can't take care of myself, a prisoner to my body locked in to a place where it can be patched and taped together before the Big One, why don't I just get a ticket to Dignitas in Switzerland instead of passing the horrors and iniquities of old age on like a hot potato or inflamed genitals? A lot of things about life are messy and unjustifiable so with our rationality delineationg what is or is not acceptable I think many people will find life itself is unnaceptable-hardly original or unprestiged!-maybe not kill themselves but definitely not inflict it for some nebulous 'spiritual growth' or something. And modern society makes the choice less painful;many distractions, birth control, painless death etc. Children are a depreciating good, life is overrated. That's why social norms have to force us to have kids these days, and why we have to be forced into this absurd world anyway. I often ask myself, would anyone at all accept to be born into africa unless it was too late to do anythign about it? I'm middle class myself, but I resent that I have unavoidably put roots in my society when I know I'm gonna move somewhere with reliable rainfall and fewer goddamn dialects/arbitrary cultural divisions anyway. But I am convinced that parents worldwide are as thoughtless as african ones, with the assumption that kids must simply be chuffed (chucked?) at achance at the go-around. this incipient antinatalism can only be a good thing.