Call it what you want: birth dearth, global fertility crisis, demographic time bomb—the reality of the Western world’s slow suicide has gone from crackpot theory to badly kept secret to acknowledged-but-ignored fait accompli.
Catholic Answers readers are, I suspect, more familiar than most with the basic facts, courageously proclaimed for decades by pro-life groups and specialized outfits like the Population Research Institute while elites in politics, media, and the academy were feeding us the standard party line that there’s just too much breeding going on (or, as P. J. O’Rourke quipped, “Just enough of me, way too much of you”). But I’ll sum up: Birth rates throughout Europe (plus Canada, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and elsewhere) are well below replacement level. America’s rate would be no better if it weren’t for the more vigorous procreation of its immigrants, but that number too is declining. Median ages are on the rise, part of a now-irreversible cultural graying that threatens to overwhelm social welfare, health care, and pension systems, which are all predicated on a steady supply of young workers paying into them.
There are some who still think this is a small price to pay for achieving what is in itself a desirable end: fewer humans. Many of these are driven by quasi-religious environmentalist motives—viewing people are parasites on Mother Earth; others are moved by misplaced compassion, falsely and facilely blaming excessive baby-making for the starving African kids they see on TV. The least reflective (and almost comically short-sighted) simply dream of how nice it would be to have a little more elbow room in Starbucks, or less traffic during their morning commute.
In his new book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, journalist Jonathan Last argues that not only are these motives misplaced, but the reality of our looming “demographic cliff” is worse than anyone wants to admit.
In a feature last week in the Wall Street Journal, Last points out that not only have population trends not come close to matching the doomsday scenarios that first became popular in the 1970s, they indicate a global decline that no one saw coming. Today, 97 percent of the world's people live in countries with fertility rates below replacement level. Within sixty years (at present rates; less if the decline accelerates) the world’s population will level off and then begin to decrease. Just in case anyone might be tempted to rejoice in that news, Last warns that population decline is a recipe for economic, cultural, and even environmental disaster:
[G]rowing populations lead to increased innovation and conservation. Think about it: Since 1970, commodity prices have continued to fall and America's environment has become much cleaner and more sustainable—even though our population has increased by more than 50%. Human ingenuity, it turns out, is the most precious resource.
Low-fertility societies don't innovate, because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don't invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don't have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.
Last’s analysis of the causes is sociologically cautious: more women in the workplace, lower wages for the middle class, higher rates of college attendance pushing back the childbearing years, and increased use of contraception. (Curiously, he doesn’t mention abortion, even though it gives us the most concrete figure we could hope to find: 55 million Americans deleted from the ranks of the living just in the last thirty years.) And his prescription for beginning to fix the problem is also modest, focusing on pro-natalist tweaks to Social Security, college costs, and transportation infrastructure.
Cue the record-scratch sound effect. What?
Last had just finished informing us that tinkering with policy has historically not made an appreciable difference in birth rates: not tax incentives for having more babies (or direct payments, to which Japan and some European countries have resorted); not expansions of the welfare state to subsidize daycare, maternity leave, and public education even more than they are today. (Presumably, Vladimir Putin’s hope that a Valentine’s Day concert by Boyz II Men will inspire more Muscovites to reproduce is similarly vain.) If cash bribes and state co-parenting aren’t enough to get us making babies, how will these more subtle and wonkish approaches fare?
I credit Last for sounding this alarm. I credit him doubly for recognizing—after citing surveys that show parents are less "happy" statistically than the childless—that any solution to population decline must include reintroducing “into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.”
But nonetheless I think he misses the broad side of the barn here. The fundamental reason for our population crisis is vice; specifically, the vice of valuing personal pleasure and worldly fulfillment over any other good. We face a population crisis, in a nutshell, because our summum bonum is the unfettered use of our genitals. That is why our culture clings blindly to the overpopulation myth—it’s a necessary component to a society that cherishes sexual expression and material comfort above all else. That's why no mere financial incentive can make a contented childless couple suddenly want to change diapers in the back of a minivan.
Until we change this state of affairs, until we a undergo a global epiphany that radically resets our moral calculus and convicts us of the truth that real happiness comes from continence, self-giving, and interpersonal communion, it won’t matter how many child tax credits we get, or whether we can telecommute to our jobs, or even if we can somehow be made to feel a patriotic duty toward future generations.
I can see no natural reason to hope that such a change is achievable. So only two futures lie before us: societal implosion or some extraordinary work of grace.