The End of Babies
The NYT article excerpted below does a good job of showing that there is a shortage of babies in all sorts of modern countries -- from Denmark to China. And many possible explanations are canvassed for the phenomenon. Some of them no doubt have some role to play but none of the explanations fit all the cases. And all are highly theoretical. So we are left with a mystery. Why is it happening?
The explanation is in fact perfectly simple if you take a long-term view. In earlier times when mothers routinely had 8 children or more the main reason for that was very poor contraceptive strategies. The babies kept coming because nobody knew to stop them. The sexual urge is a strong one and very little can stop it acting out. Even celibate Roman Catholic priests often managed to father a baby.
Then came the contraceptive pill. It was an effective baby-blocker. And women worldwide started blocking their babies. Childbirth became optional.
But the interesting thing is that the pill did not block all births. It was mainly the unwanted pregnancies that were blocked. And among the unwanted pregnancies were pregnancies in women who were not maternally inclined. In the past, many women were not keen on getting pregnant but got pregnant anyway. So a large part of the population was the product of unmaternal women. Even unmaternal women reproduced.
And because of that there were very many women in the population who were born with missing or reduced maternal motivation. They were born to unmaternal women and inherited that motivation. And after the pill, they could live as they wished -- without children. So they did. It was largely the unmaternal women who stopped having babies.
But the maternal instinct is strong in many women so such women were very different. They actively sought a life with children in it. They were willing to give up a lot to have children. So they too did what they wanted and had children. They kept the population alive
So we are left with a situation where it is largely maternal women who are reproducing. The unmaternal women are editing themselves out of the gene pool. In future all the women alive will be the descendants of maternal women and the rate of childbirth will recover. The dead-weight of unmaternal women will have been removed from the statistics by their own choices.
It is true that families across the board are much smaller than they were but there is considerable variation, nonetheless. Some women have one child, some have four (etc.) so it seems likely that if we did not count unmaternal mothers who have deliberately refrained from giving birth we probably would have a population that is reproducing itself.
So we live at the moment in a transitional phase, when unmaternal women have mostly not yet edited themselves out of existence and it is their lack of babies that is weighing down the birth statistics. They will be gone before long and society will rejoice again in mostly child-filled homes
I may be criticized for not mentioning fathers above. But it is another feature of the modern world that fathers have become optional. It is the women who decide to have the babies
Fertility rates have been dropping precipitously around the world for decades — in middle-income countries, in some low-income countries, but perhaps most markedly, in rich ones.
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. Decades of survey data show that people’s stated preferences have shifted toward smaller families. But they also show that in country after country, actual fertility has fallen faster than notions of ideal family size. In the United States, the gap between how many children people want and how many they have has widened to a 40-year high. In a report covering 28 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women reported an average desired family size of 2.3 children in 2016, and men wished for 2.2. But few hit their target. Something is stopping us from creating the families we claim to want. But what?
There are as many answers to this question as there are people choosing whether to reproduce. At the national level, what demographers call “underachieving fertility” finds explanations ranging from the glaring absence of family- friendly policies in the United States to gender inequality in South Korea to high youth unemployment across Southern Europe. It has prompted concerns about public finances and work force stability and, in some cases, contributed to rising xenophobia.
But these all miss the bigger picture.
Our current version of global capitalism — one from which few countries and individuals are able to opt out — 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.
These economic and social dynamics combine with the degeneration of our environment in ways that hardly encourage childbearing: Chemicals and pollutants seep into our bodies, disrupting our endocrine systems. On any given day, it seems that some part of the inhabited world is either on fire or underwater.
To worry about falling birthrates because they threaten social security systems or future work force strength is to miss the point; they are a symptom of something much more pervasive.
Something is stopping us from creating the families we claim to want. But what?
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. And yes, it is even happening in Denmark.
Danes don’t face the horrors of American student debt, debilitating medical bills or lack of paid family leave. College is free. Income inequality is low. In short, many of the factors that cause young Americans to delay having families simply aren’t present.
Even so, many Danes find themselves contending with the spiritual maladies that accompany late capitalism even in wealthy, egalitarian countries. With their basic needs met and an abundance of opportunities at their fingertips, Danes instead must grapple with the promise and pressure of seemingly limitless freedom, which can combine to make children an afterthought, or an unwelcome intrusion on a life that offers rewards and satisfactions of a different kind — an engaging career, esoteric hobbies, exotic holidays.
“Parents say that ‘children are the most important thing in my life,’” said Dr. Ziebe. By contrast, those who haven’t tried it — who cannot imagine the shifts in priorities it produces, nor fathom its rewards — see parenting as an unwelcome responsibility. “Young people say, ‘Having children is the end of my life.’”
There are, to be sure, many people for whom not having children is a choice, and growing societal acceptance of voluntary childlessness is undoubtedly a step forward, especially for women. But the rising use of assisted reproductive technologies in Denmark and elsewhere (in Finland, for example, the share of children born via assisted reproduction has nearly doubled in a little more than a decade; in Denmark, it accounts for an estimated one in 10 births) suggests that the same people who see children as a hindrance often come to want them.
Kristine Marie Foss, a networking specialist and event manager, almost missed out on parenthood. A stylish woman with a warm smile, Ms. Foss, now 50, always dreamed of finding love, but none of her serious boyfriends lasted. She spent most of her 30s and 40s single; those were also the decades in which she worked as an interior designer, created several social networks (including one for singles, “before it was cool to be single”) and expanded and deepened her friendships.
It wasn’t until she was 39 that she realized it might be time to start thinking seriously about a family. A routine visit to the gynecologist prompted an unexpected revelation: “If I become 50 or 60 and I don’t have kids, I know I’m going to hate myself the rest of my life,” said Ms. Foss, now the mother of a 9-year-old and 6-yearold via a sperm donor. Ms. Foss has joined the ranks of what Danes call “solomor,” or single mothers by choice, a cohort that has been growing since 2007, when the Danish government began covering IVF for single women.
There are those who have always sought to lay the blame for declining fertility, in some way, on women — for their individual selfishness in eschewing motherhood, or for their embrace of feminism’s expansion of women’s roles. But the instinct to explore life without children is not restricted to women. In Denmark, one out of five men will never become a parent, a figure that is similar in the United States.
Trent MacNamara, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University, has been pondering human attitudes toward fertility and family for over a decade. Economic conditions, he notes, are only part of the picture. What may matter more are “the little moral signals we send each other,” he writes in a forthcoming essay, “based on big ideas about dignity, identity, transcendence and meaning.” Today, we have found different ways to make meaning, form identities and relate to transcendence.
In this context, he said, having children may appear to be no more than a “quixotic lifestyle choice” absent other social cues reinforcing the idea that parenting connects people “to something uniquely dignified, worthwhile and transcendent.”
In a secular world in which a capitalist ethos — extract, optimize, earn, achieve, grow — prevails, those cues are increasingly difficult to notice. Where alternative value systems exist, however, babies can be plentiful. In the United States, for example, communities of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons and Mennonites have birthrates higher than the national average.
Lyman Stone, an economist who studies population, points to two features of modern life that correlate with low fertility: rising “workism” — a term popularized by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson — and declining religiosity. “There is a desire for meaning-making in humans,” Mr. Stone told me. Without religion, one way people seek external validation is through work, which, when it becomes a dominant cultural value, is “inherently fertility reducing.”
Denmark, he notes, is not a workaholic culture, but is highly secular. East Asia, where fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, is often both. In South Korea, for example, the government has introduced tax incentives for childbearing and expanded access to day care. But “excessive workism” and the persistence of traditional gender roles have combined to make parenting difficult, and especially unappealing for women, who take on a second shift at home.
The difference between life in tiny Denmark, with its generous social welfare system and its high marks for gender equality, and life in China, where social assistance is spotty and women face rampant discrimination, is vast. Yet both countries face fertility rates well below replacement levels.
If Denmark illustrates the ways that capitalist values of individualism and self-actualization can nonetheless take root in a country where its harshest effects have been blunted, China is an example of how those same values can sharpen into competition so cutthroat that parents speak of “winning from the starting line,” that is, equipping their children with advantages from the earliest possible age. (One scholar told me this can even encompass timing conception to help a child in school admissions.)
After decades of restricting most families to just one child, the government announced in 2015 that all couples were permitted to have two. Despite this, fertility has barely budged. China’s fertility rate in 2018 was 1.6.