A very good piece from Ross Douthat that appeared in the New York Times a couple of days ago is well worth a read. In it, he discusses the Unites States’ advantage that it has historically had over its rivals: a robust birth rate and expanding population. As he states:
“It’s a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility. But compared with the swiftly aging nations of East Asia and Western Europe, the American birthrate has proved consistently resilient, hovering around the level required to keep a population stable or growing over the long run.
America’s demographic edge has a variety of sources: our famous religiosity, our vast interior and wide-open spaces (and the four-bedroom detached houses they make possible), our willingness to welcome immigrants (who tend to have higher birthrates than the native-born).”
However, that is the historic position. Douthat goes on to cast doubt that this demographic advantage will continue for the US. He cites the dropping birthrate in the US since the 2008 recession, the even faster falling birthrate amongst foreign-born Americans, and the declining “push” factors from the US’ source of immigrants: Mexico and Latin America. These factors have been looked at before on this blog. Of more interest however, is his discussion of the cultural shifts that have pushed down the birthrate:
“…there’s been a broader cultural shift away from a child-centric understanding of romance and marriage. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans told Pew that children were ‘very important’ to a successful marriage; in 2007, just before the current baby bust, only 41 percent agreed. (That trend goes a long way toward explaining why gay marriage, which formally severs wedlock from sex differences and procreation, has gone from a nonstarter to a no-brainer for so many people.)”
While the US Government can try and help things by introducing family-friendly policies such as a family tax code, flexible working hours or reducing the cost of college, these won’t change the cultural shift in the US. (A point that we have also made over the last few months – will giving a tax break really encourage people to have more children??) Douthat makes the same point in a much more elegant way:
“Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.”
As a new parent, I can attest to how difficult a child can be, I can see why people would be overwhelmed by the downsides of child-rearing. On the other hand, people focus on these downsides far too much. In doing so, they miss the amazing beauty of being a parent. To be a parent is, in the proper sense of the word, good.
So what solution does Douthat propose?
“Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made.”
Hmmm, that sounds hard. Panem et circenses would go down so much better.
PS: Douthat wrote a very good reply to critics of his piece. See it here.