There is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size.
Anna Louie Sussman wrote an essay in the New York Times, given the unfortunate title “The End of Babies” (about which more below). I like a lot of it, and I have substantial disagreements with the framing.
It’s about falling fertility and capitalism. This is a great summary, though I would replace “not necessarily a bad thing” with “usually a very good thing”:
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.
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.
Sussman sees the “bigger picture” as this:
Our current version of global capitalism … 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.
This paragraph uses a sort of 1% versus 99% framing with is exaggerated but not unreasonable. This, however, is just exaggerated:
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.
Lost in this, by now, is all the good parts about falling fertility mentioned previously. Remember, contraceptives are good, and most people use them deliberately to help control their lives, and they do it because social and environmental conditions have made it possible to have more control over one’s life than ever before, while offering unprecedented opportunities for women beyond child-rearing.
In short, I agree with Sussman’s description of how some people in rich societies would like to have more children than they do, I just don’t think it’s anything like a universal or even general experience in our era. And there is a puzzle confounding the premise: within rich countries, or at least the USA, privileged people, who presumably have more control over their lives and destinies, still have fewer children than those who are more powerless. I once wrote:
There is an argument that Americans are having fewer children than they want to because of our stone age work-family policies, especially poor family leave support and the high costs of good childcare. I’m sure that’s happening to some degree, but it’s still the case that more privileged people, who should be able to overcome those things more readily — people with college degrees and Whites — have lower fertility rates than people who are getting squeezed more.
Like a lot of work in this area, Sussman’s assessment that people want more children — which generates the image of the “reproductive malaise [that] has settled over,” in this case, Denmark — is based on surveys showing people’s “ideal” family size is larger than the average number of children actually born per family. But the interpretation of this gap is not so straightforward. Maybe people think three is the ideal number of children, but they also think a PhD is the ideal amount of education, and so they compromise, with some having one kid and a PhD, and some having three kids and a no college degree. This is an empirical question. What’s historically unprecedented and still so new that we don’t know what to make of it socially is the fact that this is a choice at all for so many people.
As I previously reported, the proportion of US women whose “ideal” number of children is higher than they number they had by age 40 has risen, from less than 15% among women born in the 1930s to almost a quarter for women born in the early 1970s. If you break that trend down by BA/no-BA education level, you can see that women with BA degrees are pushing it upward:
So maybe college graduate women are having fewer than their ideal number of children like I’m earning less than the ideal amount of money — I think I could be making more money, but then I wouldn’t be able to sit around in my pajamas blogging with my dog, so I compromise. Of course, like some of the people in Sussman’s piece, a lot of people are justifiably unhappy about this, feeling they can’t compromise between forces pulling them in opposite directions. And so the result is dissatisfaction, maybe even malaise. I just don’t think we know how many people feel that way, or even whether the feeling is much more prevalent than it used to be.
Sussman uses Denmark as one case study. This is her summary:
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.
But where is the evidence for this malaise? Denmark’s fertility rate has been low and relatively stable, while it is the USA’s that has plummeted since 2007, which is why the countries are now at the same level. The malaise that is settling is here — Denmark’s has already settled.
To elaborate on Denmark: There was a rapid drop in fertility from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, followed by a rebound, and then relative stability for about 25 years. During that time, as the population continued to grow slowly, women were reaching age 40 with between 1.8 and 1.9 children on average. Rather than slipping into a chasm, it looks more like the affluent people of Denmark have settled into a moderately low-fertility regime.
“Replacement” fertility, of about 2.1 births per woman, doesn’t mean a society is healthy or happy. Maybe late capitalism with a decent welfare state is not “hostile to reproduction,” maybe it just doesn’t quite get to 2.1.
How bad is that? Like the USA (see my last projections), Denmark will have population decline if they keep on this path, discounting immigration. Because they have been at low fertility for a while, the country is close to seeing actual decline based on birth rates alone. Here is what would happen over the next hundred years if current trends persist and there are no immigrants: The population would eventually contract 31%.
A 31% population drop a century from now would make for a pretty different Denmark (as will another few feet of sea-level rise). But there is time to get there — the drop would only be 6% in the next three decades. And of course if they don’t want this, they could easily cushion the fall with immigration. In any event, there is nothing here that suggests the “end of babies” or the abandonment of reproduction — families would continue having an average of 1.8 children each, as they have for the last several decades.
A population below replacement fertility might seem diseased, but it might also just be the aggregation of a lot of people exercising their newfound freedoms in newly discovered ways, including having fewer or no children. I agree with Sussman when she writes:
The problem, to be clear, is not really one of “population” …. 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.
To the extent those tragedies occur, we should prevent or ameliorate them. And to the extent they are concentrated among people or groups who already experience marginalization, isolation, or exploitation, it’s a social problem that’s part of our burgeoning inequality suite. Healthcare, housing, education, and family leave all come to mind as helpful, even if they can’t solve the existential crisis of late capitalism. But two cautions. First, I’m not convinced such tragedies are more common than they used to be, just because people are having fewer children than they used to. Remember, we also have fewer people trapped into having large families they don’t want (forced-birther policies notwithstanding).
And second, crucially, even if we address these issues of self-determination, there is no guarantee that a happy, healthy, equal, and harmonious population wants to produce enough children to maintain or grow its total size. We may eventually have to learn to live with fewer people, locally and globally, even if we’re all happy with the number of children we have.
What comes around
In the meantime, I think it’s confusing and ultimately unhelpful to confound what are essentially orthogonal issues. We should care about the problems Sussman raises regardless of population trends.
And that brings me to an aside on New York Times coverage. It was just 11 years ago, in 2008, that a different New York Times story about the existential threat of falling fertility, this one in the Magazine and titled “No Babies?”, singled out Scandinavian countries — with total fertility rates of 1.8 — as positive examples, bucking the trend toward “lowest-low” fertility demonstrated by Southern European countries, due to their “vigorous social-welfare systems.” That’s the same social welfare system, and the same total fertility rate, that Sussman characterizes as a “reproductive malaise” in Denmark today.
And there are illustrations of children playing alone in both cases. Because “the end of babies” and a world with “no babies” is best illustrated with a picture of the last child on earth alone in a playground. Great illustrations — just not of our societies.
You can’t really pin sudden fertility swings on things like “late capitalism,” which are decades in the making. It was just February of 2009 that I was writing one of my first blog posts, “Why Are American Women Having More Children?” as U.S. total fertility rose to 2.1 for the first time since 1971. I think it was late capitalism, too, but the U.S. TFR was 13% higher than Denmark’s (they are now the same), and everyone was talking about American mothers “opting out” of the labor force to stay home with their four children. On the other hand is socialist Finland — a country with a lot of what I want from social policy, including low inequality and poverty, and lots of family leave — which has seen a fertility decline since 2010 that could reasonably be called a crash. The government estimates the TFR in 2019 is 1.32-1.34, down from 1.86 a decade ago!
Here are the trends in select countries:
Does this mean the people in Finland are suddenly much less happy relative to those in Denmark, which has seen a recent uptick in fertility rates? I have no idea. I can make population projections if you tell me the fertility rate, but I can’t tell you what the fertility rate will be in the future (and neither can you). A tiny bit humbling, honestly.