Over the past few years, a new demographic crisis has emerged as a subject of intense debate: the most affluent, most advanced, freest societies of the world are not having enough children to sustain themselves. Recent books—including Phillip Longman’s The Empty Cradle (2004) and Ben J. Wattenberg’s Fewer (2004)—have described the potentially tragic consequences of this decline. Lamenting the collapse of modern birthrates, world leaders as diverse as Vladimir Putin and Pope Benedict XVI have advocated pro-natalist state policies. Popular magazines and newspapers that once worried about the horrors of a “population explosion”—mass starvation in developing countries, environmental catastrophe, the subjugation of women trapped by the excessive burdens of serial motherhood—today ask whether free societies mean to perpetuate themselves at all.
Right now, the answer, with a few exceptions, is no. The data Longman and Wattenberg present are compelling. Since the 1950’s, the total fertility rate (TFR) in Europe has fallen from 2.7 to 1.38—an astounding 34 percent below the replacement rate of 2.1, which is the average number of children per couple needed for a society to sustain itself. Japan’s fertility rate is 1.32, and its average age is already forty-two years and climbing. (The world average, by comparison, is in the mid-twenties.) A large number of nations, including Russia, Spain, Italy, South Korea, and the Czech Republic, have TFR’s between 1.0 and 1.3; some of these nations (most notably Russia) are already experiencing rapid population decline. Generations of children are growing up without brothers or sisters, and a sizable percentage of men and women in the most advanced nations will never have any children at all.
Compared with most of its democratic peers, the United States is still in decent demographic shape, with a fertility rate hovering near replacement and with sizable variations from region to region (higher fertility in most “red” states, lower fertility in most “blue” states) and as between child-rearing immigrants and child-avoiding natives. But like every other advanced nation, the U.S. is also heading toward a mass geriatric society, with more elderly dependents and fewer grown children to care for them or grandchildren to replace them.
The consequences of the birth dearth now worry people of every imaginable political, religious, and ideological stripe. One major set of worries is economic. In a 2004 study commissioned by the European Union, the Rand Corporation warned that “declines in human capital” are regularly accompanied by potential reductions in productivity, consequent burdens on “pension and social-insurance systems,” and, with smaller households, a decreasing ability “to care for the growing elderly population.” In other words: fewer workers, more retirees, and a fiscal crisis for the European welfare state.
The economic problems do not stop there. Older populations are less likely to be innovative and entrepreneurial, and less likely to produce the consumer power necessary to drive national economies. Moreover, those states that raise taxes on the young to support programs for the old will only make it more difficult for the rising generation to afford children of their own. The result is a vicious cycle of economic stagnation, a graying of society on the way to decline or extinction.
But the deeper demographic worries are cultural. To Longman, the central looming problem is what he calls, in the title of a recent article in Foreign Policy, “The Return of Patriarchy.” Since religious fundamentalists are still having children while liberal secularists are not, Longman fears a “new Dark Ages,” a demographic reversal of the Enlightenment in which zealous Christians at home and radical Muslims abroad will eventually inherit the earth. He therefore wants liberals to become pro-natalist, and urges democratic societies to enact child-friendly social and economic policies. If children are more affordable, he hopes, happiness-seeking adults with limited resources will have more of them.
George Weigel, relying heavily on Longman’s data, flips his argument on its head. In The Cube and the Cathedral (2005) and again in last month’s COMMENTARY (“Europe’s Two Culture Wars”), he argues that the cause of population decline is the abolition of Christian Europe, the birthplace of human rights and human progress. Conversely, Christian renewal offers, for Weigel, the best hope of saving the West from the twin dangers of liberal secularism’s soul-destroying barrenness and radical Islam’s nation-destroying fecundity. A similar argument has been advanced in the New Criterion by the columnist Mark Steyn, who attributes the West’s low fertility to its “lack of civilizational confidence.” The “design flaw of the secular social-democratic state,” Steyn writes, “is that it requires a religious-society birthrate to sustain it.”
Other cultural dangers loom as well. Once today’s childless generations grow old, they will face the prospect of their own mortality without children to care for them, comfort them, and mourn them. As the personal freedom of the past ends in isolation, euthanasia may come to seem the most rational, or perhaps the only plausible, solution to the debilities of old age. Not only that, but the old will die with little assurance that the faith of their fathers will persist after them, from generation to generation.
Of course one must always tread lightly in contemplating the choices of free people in free societies—choices often made for good human reasons. Nor is there perfect analytic unanimity on how exactly we have come to our present pass and what it portends. No single explanation seems able to account for variations in fertility rates from place to place, and no simple correlation suggests itself between economic conditions on the one hand and birthrates on the other, or for that matter between religiosity and fecundity.
Thus, sub-cultures within the wealthiest nations—like the haredi Jews of New York or the Mormons of Utah—have fertility rates that are among the highest in the world, even as those of their next-door neighbors are among the lowest. Even among modern democratic nations as a whole, moreover, the richest—like the United States or France—can show comparatively higher fertility rates while some of the less wealthy—like Poland or Hungary—have comparatively lower ones. As for the notoriously fecund Islamic countries, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan rank among the world’s most fertile, but Iran is among the least. (Where the Iranian regime in the 1980’s demanded more “soldiers for Islam,” today it punishes those who produce three children or more.)
Ours, moreover, is hardly the only age or civilization to experience a demographic crisis. “In our own time,” wrote Polybius in roughly 150 B.C.E., “the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birthrate and a general decrease of the population, owing to which cities have become deserted and the land has ceased to yield fruit.” The reason for this decline, he believed, was decadence. “For as men had fallen into such a state of pretentiousness, avarice, and indolence that they did not wish to marry, or if they married to rear children born to them, or at most as a rule one or two of them, . . . the evil rapidly and insensibly grew.”
In the most modern parts of the modern world, however, three aspects of fertility do seem historically unprecedented and clearly important. First, there is no stigma attached to being childless; a woman’s worth, in this life or the next, is not judged adversely if she chooses never to have children. Second, children are no longer economic assets, as they generally were in rural and early industrial societies; rather, they are economic burdens, voracious consumers who produce virtually nothing until their late teens or early twenties. Third, fertility control is now both uneventful and virtually absolute. Those who want to avoid having children can easily do so—without restraining their natural sex drive, without putting themselves at physical risk, and without resorting to infanticide or abortion.
Children are thus culturally optional, economically burdensome, and technologically avoidable. Still, having the option to avoid children is not a reason to avoid them, and for many, clearly, the economic burdens seem bearable enough. So the question remains: why do so many men and women in the most affluent societies in history seem to want so few offspring?
A small literature has been devoted to this question by now. In “What Do Women Really Want?” (Public Interest, Winter 2005), the social scientist Neil Gilbert develops an attitudinal typology running from so-called “traditionalists”—i.e., women with three or more children who “derive most of their sense of personal identity and achievement from the traditional childrearing responsibilities and from practicing the domestic arts”—to, at the other end of the spectrum, “postmodern” women who are childless “by choice” and focused on themselves and their careers. In the middle are “modern” women with one child and “neo-traditional” women with two children—ways of life that vary in degree but not in kind from the big-family traditionalists and no-family postmodernists.
Over the past few decades, Gilbert finds, the trend toward the “modern” and “postmodern” end of the spectrum has been significant, with predictable demographic results. In the United States, the number of women with no children has nearly doubled to 18 percent and the number with one child (now 17 percent) is climbing faster than the number with two (now 35 percent). If, in 1976, 59 percent of women over forty had three or more children, today only 29 percent do. In Europe and Japan, the figures are skewed even more heavily toward childless and one-child families.
To be sure, for some men and women, childlessness is an un-chosen misery. But as Gilbert’s categories suggest, most childlessness in our age is clearly purposive—the result of the positive pursuit of social and moral goods other than children. In defining and justifying this huge cultural trend, the twin forces of modern feminism and modern individualism have been decisive.
The early stirrings of today’s “childfree movement” have been traced by Elaine Tyler May (in Barren in the Promised Land, 1997) all the way back to the time when the great postwar baby boom in the United States was beginning to come to an end. She cites a playful 1958 article titled “Pity the Childless Couple”:
There’s nothing sadder than the childless couple. It breaks you up to see them stretched out relaxing around the swimming pools . . . all suntanned and miserable . . . or going off to Europe like lonesome fools. It’s an empty life. There’s nothing but more money to spend, more time to enjoy, and a whole lot less to worry about.
By the late 1960’s and 1970’s, these “musings of a good mother—on a bad day” would become an entire philosophy of life. Its components included a radical turn against motherhood—“the birth of children,” wrote Ellen Peck in The Baby Trap (1971), “marks the end of adventure, of growth, of sexuality, of life itself”—coupled with a defense of unencumbered sex and romance and an embrace of female ambition and worldly power.
This redefinition of the meaning of life has now survived three decades in which feminism itself has been redefined over and over again. Today, for example, “choice feminism”—the idea that every woman should decide for herself the best mix of motherhood and career—is widely acknowledged to have failed, amid much bitterness on the part of women who complain they were deceived into thinking they could “have it all.” In a recent essay in the American Prospect, the feminist Linda Hirshman contends that women who have tried to balance work and family end up sacrificing the former to the latter, living lives tyrannized by diapers and dependent on men for their sustenance. Instead of such false “choices,” she advocates a return to feminism’s radical roots—ruthlessly ambitious, focused on self and money, uninterested in children. If a woman must have a baby, Hirshman writes, she should stop at one. (Somewhat flippantly, she also concedes that “if you follow this rule, your society will not reproduce itself.”)
In their case against children, feminists of this stripe find a passionate ally in the environmentalist movement. Like feminism, environmentalism is a cause with many faces, but a majority of its adherents subscribe to the basic maxim that the fewer people there are, the less pollution there will be. In this view, man is not the measure of all things, and self-control, including reproductive self-denial, is sometimes obligatory for the good of the planet. The classic statement of this view is Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 tract The Population Bomb, which declared: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” In Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single-Child Families (1998), Bill McKibben articulates the same sensibility with far greater moderation, arguing that single-child families are not only environmentally virtuous but often best for the child.
As McKibben’s formulation suggests, however, environmentalist zeal in itself is rarely the reason that people decide not to have children or to limit their progeny to one. It is, instead, a way to add a patina of self-sacrifice to decisions made on other grounds—mostly self-regarding or family-regarding ones.
Not that such grounds are necessarily trivial or unworthy in themselves. Raising children is a labor, requiring a constant outlay of time and energy, imposing a burden of new and growing expenses, and limiting one’s personal freedom for two decades or more. To many, the economic and/or psychic costs may well seem too high, and there is no shortage of experts supplying data to confirm that impression. According to an author writing in the New Yorker, “Married couples with children are twice as likely as childless couples to file for bankruptcy. . . . And they’re also far more likely to face foreclosures on their homes.” According to another recent study, parenthood is often associated with higher rates of depression.
No wonder, then, that many people decide to have just one child, or maybe two. For many parents—not themselves excessively selfish, or ideologically committed to childlessness, or ruled by ambition alone—the most compelling reason not to have more children is to benefit the child they already have, with the best schools, the best medical care, and the nicest neighborhoods. In this conception, having only one or maybe two children translates into an effort on the part of parents to act responsibly in a world of high economic expectations and emotional pressure. Anti-children in effect, they are pro-child in intention.
Yet herein also lies the dilemma, at least where society is concerned. The one-child family may flourish economically, but, as we have seen, a society of one-child families can lead to “market failure” on a disastrous scale, especially when, as in our own system, the young are expected to pay for the old through entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Private wealth can lead to public impoverishment.
Admittedly, the relationship between demographics and economic prosperity is a complicated matter. In dysfunctional nations that still lack market economies, keeping fertility low can be a form of short-term humanitarianism, reducing the extent of general misery. Moreover, it is quite possible that dramatic fertility reductions in countries like India and China have had beneficial economic effects, by limiting the number of dependent children, freeing women to join the “productive” sector, and temporarily expanding the working-age population. But even in such societies this “demographic dividend” will eventually need to be repaid as the population ages and the ratio of young workers to elderly dependents reverses itself.
In America, Europe, and the world’s other advanced democracies, this same demographic shift—more elderly dependents, fewer workers, the overall graying of society—is already here and getting worse. Today’s remedial measures—increases in daycare benefits in Sweden, tax incentives for couples with children in France, a new prescription-drug benefit in America—are modest to a fault: too small to convince potential parents to have children (or more children), and likely only to increase the cost of already burgeoning entitlements. And today’s worries are mild compared with what is almost certainly coming when the baby boomers retire.
True, those who have only one child or no children are usually wealthier throughout the course of their lives than those who bear the economic costs of raising the young, and they have ample capacity to save for their own retirements. True, too, childless societies in which people accumulate assets during youth, spend them down when they are old, and leave nothing behind can perhaps manage a smooth transition to extinction. Alternatively, one can imagine a renewal through immigration, with young workers born in the heyday of African or South American fertility moving to North America and Europe to make a living for themselves and to support the graying natives.
But merely to state such “solutions” is to reveal that they are partial at best. After all, the inability or unwillingness to see oneself as old and in need of care, or to envision a world that will continue after one is gone, might inhibit rather than enhance the accumulation of adequate resources to pay for old age, just as it inhibits the creation of human capital in the form of children. While some middle-class couples with two incomes and no children (or one child) would be able to pay for their own healthcare until death, using money their neighbors have spent to send their three children to college, many will not think adequately about the needs of old age until it arrives. And they will almost certainly exert their oversized political power to preserve their personal entitlements when it comes time to collect them. As for immigration, despite America’s track record of success in integrating newcomers, deep reservoirs of discontent have already gathered on this matter, as recent debates have underlined. Meanwhile, the democratic nations of Europe, with little success in integrating immigrants and with expanding and radicalizing Muslim populations, feel a need to close their doors at the very moment when their economic survival requires them to remain open.
Ironically, even a sudden upswing in European and American birthrates would not offer an immediate answer to today’s demographic crisis. Children enter the world as helpless infants, not as high-tech entrepreneurs or geriatric nurses. (In this latter respect, adults without children of their own may have more time and resources to care for their aging parents, even if no one to care for them in turn.) Moreover, state programs intended to encourage higher fertility or to ease the economic burden of raising children are very expensive and will only worsen the fiscal situation, at least temporarily. No matter what we do, some amount of short-term economic pain is almost inevitable.
But what matters most is the long term, and what will determine the long-term fate of modern democracies is not economics but culture. No one will decide to have children in order to improve the balance sheets of a nation’s pension system. Only a different attitude toward the bearing and rearing of the young can ensure that Western civilization as we know it has a future.
Here is where the experience of the past may help us think through what is unique and what is permanent about our own situation. If drastically falling birthrates are hardly a new phenomenon in human history, neither is fertility control, and the reasons advanced for it by the ancients are of compelling interest—as are their reasons for having children in the first place.
In both ancient Greece and Rome, fertility control was seen as a prudent course for well-established families to follow: a means of transferring wealth from generation to generation, undivided by multiple heirs, and of preserving each man’s share of immortality by preserving the family name. As Hesiod described, one would “hope for an only son to nourish his father’s house, for this is how wealth waxes in the hall.” Aristotle suggested that “the proper thing to do is to limit the size of each family, and if children are then conceived in excess of the limit so fixed, to have a miscarriage induced before sense and life have begun in the embryo.”
In general, Greek and Roman children were not seen as sacred gifts but as products of nature—sometimes wanted and sometimes not, sometimes with the potential for human flourishing and sometimes sub-human, sometimes useful to their progenitors and sometimes liabilities. “Monstrous offspring we suppress,” wrote Seneca, “and we drown infants that are weakly or abnormal.” The natural affections of mothers and fathers for their children, surely not absent, were usually governed (at least among elites) by the patrilineal ideal or the pursuit of pleasure, sexual and otherwise. As Angus McLaren explains in his superb study, A History of Contraception (1991), “the Roman elite did not relish the prospect of their urbanized, civilized style of life being jeopardized by a horde of infants.”
But in those days, too, the good of the family and the happiness of the individual did not always serve the public good. At some point, the Roman combination of patrimony and pleasure broke down, prompting fears of depopulation and giving rise to laws that punished the unmarried and the childless and that publicly rewarded those with three or more children. In support of such “marriage legislation,” the emperor Augustus supposedly read from the famous speech of the censor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, delivered in 131 B.C.E.:
If we could survive without a wife, citizens of Rome, all of us would do without that nuisance; but since nature has so decreed that we cannot manage comfortably with them, nor live in any way without them, we must plan for our lasting preservation rather than for our temporary pleasure.
Making the leap from Athens and Rome to the world of the Bible, one encounters a rather different idea of procreation. It is captured succinctly in the famous passage from Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply.” When God addresses Noah after the flood, His speech begins and ends with these words—first as a divine blessing, then as a divine commandment.
God seeks to replenish the world destroyed by the flood, and to introduce a new age of law and justice ruled by men who are themselves ruled by God. Yet man, unlike the other animals, must be commanded to have offspring. Even as his God-like possibilities depend upon his animal-like capacity to reproduce, he alone among the animals has the power to reject and control his procreative powers. Man alone is tempted by illusions of self-sufficiency, or is prone to allow either present goods or present miseries to curb his desire to raise up the next generation. One might even say that the Bible here offers a preemptive critique of sociobiology—that is, the idea that the passing-on of our genes is the deepest impulse of human existence—before this new science was fashionable (and before it was clear that sociobiology cannot explain the current age of fertility decline).
On the subject of childlessness, it is also useful to compare two seemingly parallel passages from the ancient world. “I shall beget no sons to swell Rome’s glory; not of my son shall historians tell,” wrote one Roman poet to his mistress. “Let me be your one joy; you at my side, I have no need of sons to feed my pride.” In the biblical book of Samuel, there is another male speech about childlessness—that of Elkanah to Hannah, his beloved but barren wife: “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”
Of course, we know that Elkanah already has sons and daughters of his own by another wife, which may account for his rather sanguine attitude. Then, too, his failure to understand Hannah’s misery—“forgotten” by God, and cruelly mocked by her fecund rival—may reflect a distinctly male blindness to her distinctly female longing for a child. But whatever the cause, Hannah herself, unlike the Roman poet, could never say “I have no need of sons,” and her ultimate reason for wanting them is the very opposite of “feeding her pride.” Indeed, she sees the child she wants as a child wanted for God. She relies upon God to open her womb, and God Himself relies upon the fruit of her womb to sustain His holy way in the world against the “wicked [who] perish in darkness.”
The ancients thus set before us three different ideas of procreation. The first is patrilineal pride—the desire to preserve one’s immortal name in the flesh of one’s children but to limit their number for the economic benefit of parent and child alike. The second, going beyond the notion of limiting the number of one’s offspring, is freedom from children, including the sexual freedom that needy infants interrupt. The third is perpetuation as an act of devotion—whether to the city, to God, or to the young themselves, who will inhabit a future one hopes to sustain but will never see.
These three desires—for patrimony, for pleasure, for perpetuation—still exist in often tragic tension, competing for our devotion. Do they have anything instructive to tell us about our own way forward in a secular and highly individualistic civilization? In their emphasis on culture over economics, one thing they may suggest is that even a pro-child tax system of the kind envisioned by Phillip Longman is unlikely to inspire the purposely childless among us to change their ways. But neither are we likely to undergo a mass religious awakening and become as pious as George Weigel and others might wish us to be. Much as we need a generation moved by Hannah’s maternal longings, we cannot rely on her unshakable faith to fuel it.
If there is any hope for the modern West, we need a persuasive, humanistic answer to the question, “Why have children?”—and in the plural, not the singular. The answer will have to resonate with those open to religious faith but uncertain that God wills them to be fruitful. And it must appeal to those who appreciate the material benefits of modern life but are not so governed by modern ambitions that having more children seems like robbing opportunity from the one or two children they already have—and who are prepared to see that, in seeking the perfect or perfectly happy child, they may be denying their offspring the greatest benefit of all: brothers and sisters with whom to grow up.
The philosopher Gabriel Marcel, in a pair of lectures delivered in Europe in the early 1940’s, spoke of the “inextricable combination of things from the past and things to come” that defines “the mystery of the family,” a “mystery in which I am involved from the mere fact that I exist.” Just as we ourselves are the “incarnation” of past generations, so on our shoulders the future of our ancestry rests. Even the most modern individual can discover that he is not “endowed with an absolute existence” of his own, and that his personal happiness entails insuring the ability of another generation to seek happiness after he is gone. In our children, the past that we incarnate is potentially preserved or redeemed, the sweet abundance of the present appreciated anew, and the future—of our families, our people, our beliefs—at least given a chance.
According to a recent Gallup poll, fully 70 percent of childless women over the age of forty regret that they have had no children. Such a statistic is reason for great sadness, but perhaps also modest hope.