Getting to the Heart of Birthrate Decline Scares

After seeing Jonathan Last in the media this week talking about his new book, What to Expect When No One is Expecting, the childfree will likely not be swayed by his reasons why we need to have to more babies to sustain our economic success. But if you run across someone who is, as Loretta (Cher) says to Ronnie (Nicolas Cage) in the movie, Moonstruck – tell him/her to snap out of it!

What’s at work here? A full frontal dimension of the Baby Matrix.

As I have discussed here before and in my latest book, at the heart of the baby matrix is a set of beliefs called pronatalism, which exalts fertility. Its influence goes back a long time to when societies needed to grow their populations to survive. To ensure population growth, those in power devised social messaging that romanticized reproduction, created laws to reward it and promote the idea that having children was one’s duty to society.

But here we are today, according to John Seager, President of Population Connection, with the world seeing a net gain of about “10,000 babies born per hour, 240,000 per day and 80 million annually.” And in the U.S., “we’re expected to cross the 400 million mark” in just 37 years.

With these kinds of numbers, why do folks like Last continue to use age old pronatalist thinking to try and influence us to bring even more babies into the world?

Because since its beginning, pronatalism has served the agendas of power structures, like church, state and industry – not individuals. And Last’s concerns come straight through the state and industry pronatalist lens. We need more “future tax payers” (aka children) to continue to foster our economic dominance. And as Amanda Marcotte puts it in her Slate piece, women as baby maker “cogs in our country’s economic machine” are key to what Last describes as the “sustainability of human capital” (aka people). More new “human capital” breeds more capitalism, which breeds more power to those in power.

Like the characters in the movie, The Matrix, we need to unravel what we’ve been taught to believe versus what is real, in this case about reproduction in our society today. According to Last, economic doom and gloom caused by fertility decline could be avoided as long as each baby maker has at least two children. Anything below that, our prosperity machine is in trouble.

But Seager gets at what’s real. In the mid-1970s (when the use of the Pill was on a dramatic rise) “America’s total fertility rate was at its lowest, at 1.74 births per woman. It inched back up in the following three decades and has only recently declined again, to about 1.9 in 2011,” in a very challenging economic time. As the economy continues to strengthen, Seager predicts those rates will likely tick up again.

What we’re to believe versus what is real also relates to this new call for our baby-making reproductive duty to society. As Seager writes, rather than shaming Americans into having more children, to “embrace a stronger American future” we need to better invest in the children we already have.

bigstock-Little-Girl smallInstead of pushing more new babies, we need to solve problems, like the “16 million American children who live below the poverty line “- the “17 million American children who suffer from food insecurity” – the thousands who are foster children, and the children who suffer from the effects of unfit parenting, including the child that is abused or neglected every 13 seconds in this country.

And the environment? Matrix: Last would have us believe that the more people, the more innovation, which will spur environmental conservation. And besides, our environmental situation is better now than it was in the 70s, when there were fewer pollution regulations.

Truth: More babies equal more carbon. More carbon means more climate change.

Last does speak a truth about historical messaging about having babies. It has been an “aspirational behavior.” People have had babies because they have been led to believe the myth that it makes for true success in life, and is the only real way to fulfill the human experience of extending beyond oneself.

It’s time to redefine aspirational behavior, starting with finding answers to how we can sustain economic success in today’s society given the current demographics and people’s decisions to have fewer (or no) children.

To figure this out, we need to see past pronatalist influence, and begin to envision a “post” pronatal society, one that looks to solutions that see people as more than cogs in a capitalist machine.

9 thoughts on “Getting to the Heart of Birthrate Decline Scares

  1. Too many people think the declining birth rate is a recent thing. They blame feminism or “today’s job market” or current events.

    The reality? In the U.S. the birthrate has been declining for over 200 years! It’s been going down and down and down, with a brief upward surge in the Baby Boom years (1950’s) and then back to its downward slide. You heard that right — the 1950’s were an ABERRATION in terms of American history, not a time of normal, traditional patterns.

    It’s the whole shift from a pre-industrial agricultural system to industrial system to post-industrial system. No one’s going to change that with social pressure to have more kids.

    Having fewer children is a very common trait in ALL modern and modernizing societies. Just about every attempt to get people to have more kids has failed. You won’t increase the birth rate by a particular government program or a media campaign. To some degree, pronatalism will have an uphill battle over the long term. It’s taken its toll, but for the most part it’s been losing for a couple centuries.

    1. I hope you are right that pronatalism will end up with an uphill battle over the long term. It may be that people have fewer, but as long as the glorification and child-centric pieces exist, power structures like business will still be at the center of its influence.

  2. “Because since its beginning, pronatalism has served the agendas of power structures, like church, state and industry – not individuals.”

    Laura, this is spot-on, and I think this fact needs constant repeating. A few months ago, I read some parts of a book called “Concerning Women,” by Suzanne LaFollette, which I believed was published in 1926 (I could be mistaken about the year). She raised the same points about having children being in the interests of the State (whether the State is civil or religious).

    Thanks for continuing to raise the topics that pronatalists continue to ignore. I really enjoyed reading this column. 🙂

    1. Yes, there were some very smart writings in the early 20s on this very issue. People tried to bring it back to the fore in the 70s, and it is time to shine a big light on it and the problems it is bringing to society today!

  3. In some ways, pronatalism today is a reactive movement, because it’s been gradually, quietly (and not so quietly) undermined for a couple centuries now by tens of millions of people, generation after generation, choosing to have fewer children than their parents did.

    In a way, the demographic math of the whole thing has forced a showdown. Now the birth rate has gotten so low that for more and more people the question isn’t about having 4 kids instead of 3 kids. The question is now down to whether to have 1 or 0. It’s back-against-the-wall time for pronatalism, because more and more the question is boiling down to whether to have any children at all. Not “how many?” but “yes or no?”

    This is actually pretty common in history. When something that’s taken as a given for a long time starts to be challenged, that institution is forced to invent a whole theory to explain why it needs to continue. It invents itself self-consciously to try to fight for its own power. The same thing has happened to monarchy, church authority, slavery, patriarchy, you name it. Sometimes the backlash is really a last gasp to try to save itself.

    1. Scott, I definitely think the mindset of guys like Last boil down to ways to keep economic power. In and of itself this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is the way to keep it – in this case, by touting the more people the better to keep capitalist consumption going, not to mention keeping women as the baby makers… I do think there is more question of 1 or no kids, but based on the #s 4/5 women have kids and just under 2 of them. So for many it is possibly decision between 1 or 2…Lauren Sandler smartly writes about the myths of having only children and has another book coming out in June. ~L

  4. It is true that current trends will lead to an inflection point and eventual decline in population. That will change the economy. The changes will be a mixture of improvements and issues. Change is inevitable. It is time, entropy and life.

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