A new spectre is haunting the developed world: terrorists still get the biggest headlines but the threat posed by babies can no longer be ignored. The babies we are not having, that is. Less than 40 years since Paul Ehrlich, in The Population Bomb, called for "population control at home" by compulsion if necessary, and less than 50 years since the contraceptive pill came on the market, Newsweek’s current cover story is about childlessness. Even in once conservative societies like Greece, says the magazine, more and more couples are choosing not to have kids. And, while this means "good things for restaurants and real estate", the trend is worrying politicians and economists.
Across Europe, East Asia and North America, and south to Australia and New Zealand young adults are putting off marriage and childbearing until they are well into their 30s or even their 40s. Around one in five women is reaching the end of her fertility childless, says Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics. While this is the same level as 100 years ago in Europe, the reasons then were extreme poverty, poor nutrition, or low marriage rates at times of war or emigration. Today’s childlessness occurs, oddly enough, among healthy women living in relative prosperity at a time when few people wait for marriage to begin sexual activity. Among the Western powers only the United States has a replacement level birthrate — 2.1 children per woman — thanks, largely, to higher fertility among Hispanic immigrants.
In Germany, where the birthrate is only 1.3, lifetime childlessness is running at 25 per cent — the highest average in the world — and has hit 30 per cent among university-educated women. In Japan, where the birthrate has inched up recently to a mere 1.25, a question mark hangs over the 56 per cent of 30-year-old women who are still childless — up from 24 per cent in 1985. "Whether they become mothers or not will determine the future of Japan," says Miho Iwasawa of Japan’s National Institute for Population Research.[i] Last year Japan’s population began to shrink and is expected to fall from 128 million to 100 million over the next half century.
Apparently, there are people who couldn’t care less. Books with titles such as Child-Free and Loving It and support groups defending the choice not to have children are appearing. Even among those who will eventually have a child or two, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead points out, the expanding years before and after child-rearing are being viewed more and more positively while parenthood is portrayed as burdensome and expensive.
The first question about all this is: Why should anyone be surprised? Ever since the 1960s people have grown up surrounded by propaganda for birth control: for the sake of the planet, the liberation of women, the economy, their own standard of living, and even for the sake of the one or two children it was still respectable to have. The last thing demographers and economists and environmentalists wanted women to do during these past few decades was get married young and start having babies. "Delay the first birth" was the population control mantra among the experts. Take a pill, they told women. Have an abortion. Don’t bother getting married yet. Get on with your education and a career. Meanwhile, you can have a terrific lifestyle…
Now, when these lessons have been thoroughly imbibed, at least by educated middle-class women, it turns out that they have been taking it all too literally, they and their male partners or single male counterparts. As "not yet" turns to "never" for an increasing number of people, our social minders are changing their tune: "People without children should never have been admitted into pension schemes because these only work when they are financed by subsequent generations. Their pensions should be cut by 50 per cent," says German economist Johan Eekhoff. There’s a certain logic to this, but it is a little hard on individuals who, until now, had no reason to think that they were other than model citizens of an overpopulated world.
The economist’s comment, however, partly answers a second question: Why does it matter if people don’t have kids?
It matters because there will be too few people of working age to pay tax and support the social security system. It matters because immigration, which is already at uncomfortable levels for many Europeans, will have to be on an even larger scale to make up for the local population deficit. And it matters because people who have children are beginning to look sideways at those who don’t and grumble to their politicians about them. People tend not to like it when they have to sell what’s left of their village for a landfill site — the imminent fate of Ogama hamlet in Japan; or when their town is downsized and put on notice of reduced services — as is happening in eastern Germany.
There are many other reasons. American commentator Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, worries that it’s religious people who are having babies while liberals are not, which means, according to him, a more politically conservative future. Nobel economics laureate Gary Becker points out that smaller populations reduce the amount of innovation in society, partly because it leads to fewer young people, who tend to be the innovators, and partly because it reduces the size of the market for new products.
Third question: Will pragmatic reasons like these bring today’s reluctant parents back to the required level of fertility? (And some kind of population control target still seems to be presiding over our demographic future.) The answer is, probably not. There are other ways of securing a pension, and few people will put themselves out to increase the amount of innovation in society or to help the Democrats win an election in 20 years’ time.
What about financial incentives? The birthrates of Sweden and France are relatively high because they have generous child subsidies/motherhood allowances and make it easy for mothers to work. Yet Gary Becker notes that France’s "thoroughgoing" system has raised the birthrate by only 0.1, from 1.7 to 1.8 per cent.
Fourth question: What can induce people to be generous with their fertility? First of all they will need to be married, since few women will risk motherhood more than once without this security. The marriage needs to have the prospect of lasting, which will be more likely if the couple have not been cohabiting. Without previous cohabiting relationships they may be married sooner and therefore be more fertile. Then, they will have some resistance to the temptations of the consumer society that would otherwise require the wife to keep working full-time. And above all, they will have to be in love — not with the merely romantic love that family scholars say is the predominant note in marriages today, but with the self-sacrificing love that parenthood demands.
All this is very counter-cultural, of course, and raises the question of what can possibly motivate people to live like this. Phillip Longman provided a clue in showing that religious people have the numbers when it comes to kids. Catholic writer George Weigel in The Cube and the Cathedral argues that the best hope of saving the West from barrenness is the Christian renewal of Europe. Eric Cohen, editor of New Atlantis, doubts the advent of a "mass religious awakening" and, looking for a "persuasive, humanistic" motive, comes up with the idea that one’s "personal happiness entails insuring the ability of another generation to seek happiness after he is gone".
Fred Turner, Professor of the Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, takes up the idea of transcending the self but believes it’s religion that makes this possible by providing the most convincing meaning for procreation. "One hypothesis about demographic collapse that might be worth checking out is that it happens when a nation loses its religion," he says. That, by the way, tallies with the higher birth rate of the United States, which is notably more religious than Europe.
If there is any other motive that can persuade large numbers of people to embrace the sacrifice as well as the satisfactions of parental love, we should see some evidence of it soon. Meanwhile, the West should stir up its faith — just in case.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.
[i] "Beyond Babies," by Stefan Theil, Newsweek International, Sept 4,2006