Fertility is the real culture war

·7 min read
A mean stork.
A mean stork. Illustrated | iStock

You learn a lot about a historical moment when you think about what it fears. In the early Cold War, the risk of nuclear annihilation dominated popular culture. As the mid-century fascination with technology waned, scenarios of environmental catastrophe and overpopulation became more prominent. When the 20th century approached its end, we dreamt machines were going to take over.

A world without children has become our doom du jour. Fertility rates in the U.S. and most other countries have been declining for years. Recent data show a pandemic baby bust despite isolating conditions that might have been expected to promote reproduction. That's good news for authors of dystopian fiction and culture warriors, two groups that are at their best when imagining the worst. It's bad news for public policy, which offers limited tools for reversing the trend.

Because it's linked to beliefs about the very meaning of life, discussions of fertility are subject to the temptation political philosopher Robert Nozick called "normative sociology ... the study of what the causes of problems ought to be." To resist the pursuit of convenient solutions in imagined explanations, it's important to consider the issue methodically.

The starting point is to ask whether declining fertility is a real problem. After all, not everyone wants children. Even if they did, food, energy, and other resources are finite. Since the overpopulation scare of the 1970s, "antinatalist" philosophers have argued that reproduction has become immoral. Their ideas echoes through anguished debates about whether to have children under conditions of climate change.

Charlton Heston's discovery that "Soylent Green is made out of people" is unforgettable, but cinematic depictions of sweating masses fighting for scraps were exaggerated. But that doesn't mean low birth rates are no big deal, either. Researcher Lyman Stone argues:

[S]lower population growth will lead to rising inequality, growing prominence of inherited wealth, increasing monopoly power by existing firms, and a decline in entrepreneurship and innovation. Demand for new housing will stagnate. Intergenerational transfer programs like Social Security (or private life insurance, or even the stock market) will face financial troubles. Interest rates and inflation will stay preternaturally low, limiting options for recession-fighting and making every recovery slower than the one before it. [American Compass]

Even if they don't lead to fiscal collapse, those are serious challenges.

There are also cultural risks. The combination of low fertility with high migration means that some countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, are facing actual population decline. As with the environmental and economic risks, it's possible to exaggerate fears of cultural decline, which have a history of encouraging nasty politics. But the world would be poorer if no one was left to speak Hungarian — whatever one thinks of Hungary's nationalist government.

More generally, children and parents' relationships with them are genuine goods in ways that can be tough to quantify but are no less important for that reason. That was the real point of the speech J.D. Vance delivered at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute last week. (Full disclosure: I was literary editor of a journal published by ISI and continue to work with the organization.) Stripped of jabs at specific politicians, Vance made a plausible case that the workist, often childless lifestyle favored by the professional upper middle class is a niche taste, at best. Even though family life can feel like a burden, at least sometimes, more Americans find meaning in it than in their jobs.

Growing interest in pronatal policies around both domestically and around the world suggests that the existence of a problem isn't all that controversial. Even the Biden administration has adopted a soft natalist policy, although they don't call it that. There's less agreement about its causes, which may include agricultural fertilizers and other pollution.

One set of arguments emphasizes changes in the economic value of children. In agricultural and early industrial societies, they are an economic advantage. Rather than costing money, children enrich their parents by working for them directly or contributing market income to family coffers. They also provide a guarantee of old age care in societies that do not offer pensions.

The opposite is true in late-industrial and service economies. When economic success requires long periods of education at parents' expense, the financial ledger tends to shift from profit to loss. Government now provide healthcare and other services, too. As a result young people don't need to worry about producing their own caregivers.

This understanding of economic rationality underlies the dominant policy approach. The idea is that if people avoid reproduction because it's expensive, the best way to encourage childbearing is to help defray the costs. Examples include free childcare, higher education subsidies, and direct cash payments.

These policies have some positive effect, but not so much as pronatalists hope. Hungary has attracted the most attention from conservatives, but France arguably has a better record of success. Yet even the generous benefits that France offers to children and families have not been sufficient to move its birthrate above replacement.

One reason economic incentives are insufficient is that perceptions of what financial conditions justify childbearing are culturally determined. Children need a certain number of calories and a place to sleep. But do they need organic food? Their own bedrooms? Tennis lessons? These sound like frills, but a recent study found little variation by income bracket in the decision to delay raising children. No matter how much they earned, about half of respondents believed that they didn't have enough money.

Members of traditional religious communities tend to overcome these obstacles. Haredi Jews, for example, have a much higher birth rate than less observant co-religionists. That outcome makes sense even though the Haredim have relatively low incomes. Big families are their priority and they're willing to accept some degree of financial and material discomfort to get them.

It's tempting to dismiss such cases as anachronistic exceptions. But recent research suggests that they, too, are influenced by broader cultural expectations. In a recent paper, Cornell sociologist Landon Schnabel argues that societal secularism predicts individual fertility, even among the devout. In other words, religious people in secular societies have fewer children than in less secular ones.

Yet babies may not be an endangered species forever. Despite the influence of secular culture and possible environmental influences, highly religious families continue to produce more children than secular ones. Although their fertility rate is declining, then, their children represent a growing share of the population. In the long run, that could lead to the creation of more religious social norms. That could encourage larger families even among the secular survivors.

If it holds up, this projection would refute the narrative popularized by The Handmaid's Tale. In that dystopia, fundamentalists snatch fertile women and their babies in order to sustain patriarchal authority. Although it was published in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale only crossed the threshold of popular awareness during the Trump administration when it was turned into a Netflix series and lines and images from the story become signatures of the self-styled Resistance.

Anti-Trump resisters may have been reading the wrong dystopian literature, though. Rather than the religious relying on the secular population to secure their future, it looks like we more secular types are relying on the religious to ensure that we don't end our days in an aging, shrinking, and essentially joyless future. That prospect is considered in P.D. James' 1992 novel The Children of Men (a movie version was released in 2006). Using elements of Gospel narratives of Jesus birth, the story depicts the first new birth in a zero-fertility society. At it happens, the plot is set in the year 2021.

For many religious conservatives, The Children of Men evokes the sort of miracle that would be necessary to reverse the baby bust. For progressives, though, a more rapidly growing population subject to stronger religious influences sounds more like another nightmare. That might be why discussion of even modest policy interventions degenerate so quickly into full-dress culture war. We're afraid of what will happen if we don't turn around the baby bust — and also afraid of what will happen if we do.

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