Here’s a cheery little factoid: In Japan, sales of adult diapers now exceed sales of baby diapers. Would you want to live in a society like that? Me neither.
But that’s where much of the Western world is heading. Even the United States, long regarded as a robust exception to the general trend, is suffering a fertility decline. Its birth rate has plunged to a record low – lower even than socialist Sweden and France.
Should we be concerned? Lots of people think so. Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is worried that a new age of American impotence is at hand. Fertility decline, he argues, means national decline. “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion – a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe,” he wrote last Saturday under the headline More Babies, Please. “It’s a spirit that … embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.”
This isn’t a new lament among conservatives. Naturally, a number of women are not pleased at being described as the collective vessels of national destiny by men who’ve probably never changed a diaper. As Chrystia Freeland argued in The Globe and Mail, it’s not the cultural exhaustion, stupid. It’s the personal exhaustion. Women’s concerns are rational, practical and immediate. The reason they have fewer kids is because they can, because they have to work to maintain their family’s middle-class lifestyle and because they lack extended networks of child support. “Women are voting with their wombs,” she wrote.
Here’s the part where I’m required to insert the obligatory personal information. When I was young, I liked working, making money and being independent. Marriage and family were the last thing on my mind. I didn’t have children. Am I sorry? No. Have I shrugged off basic sacrifices? No question. What circumstances could possibly have induced me to have three kids by age 26, as my mother did? I can’t imagine.
Does it really matter if women have children? Who cares if society is getting old? A lot of people think that demographic declinism is essentially a conservative male form of hysteria. Surely we can be prosperous and vibrant without more babies. Besides, declining birth rates are better for the planet.
But I think the demographic declinists are mostly right. Our prosperity and happiness depend on economic growth, and that depends, at least to some extent, on population growth. As economics writer Megan McArdle points out, when populations crash, economies crash, too, and when economies stagnate, societies get meaner. We need productive younger people to support unproductive older people.
But it’s more than that. Aging societies are sclerotic. Younger people have more ideas, more energy, more tolerance for risk, more sense of possibility, and more willingness to invest for the future. Older people just want to hang on to what they’ve got. The fundamental interests of the generations – health care versus schools – are diametrically opposed, and the geezers will vote against the young every time.
In Canada, we’re not obsessed with our national potency. But our demographic dilemmas aren’t imaginary. Even our high rates of immigration don’t make up for our low birth rate. We, too, are headed for adult diaperland.
Is there a fix? Of course there is, I can hear you say. More social programs! What we need is to become more like France and Sweden, which have cheap daycare, more generous maternity leave, flextime and so on. The answer is to take greater collective responsibility for the burden of raising children, so people won’t be penalized for having more of them.
Call me skeptical. Government policies might make a difference at the margins, but they can’t make up for profound long-term shifts in behaviour and attitudes. As Ross Douthat pointed out, as recently as 1990, 65 per cent of American adults said children are “very important” for a successful marriage, according to the Pew Research Center; by 2007, only 41 per cent said that. Sixty years, ago, unmarried women in their 30s were pitied as old maids. Today, singlehood is becoming the new norm.
Another catch: People are right that children cost a fortune – not because they have to, or even because of the high price of child care, but because of the inescapable requirements of status competition. When my husband was a baby, he wore hand-me-downs and slept in a dresser drawer. Today’s babies require $700 strollers and moccasins from Roots, to be followed by hockey lessons, an expensive house in a good school district, and trips to Disney World.
Both conservatives and progressives are searching for collective solutions to the dwindling away of family life that has brought us our demographic dilemma. Conservatives believe the answer is for society to return to religiosity, marriage and “family values.” Progressives believe conservatives should stop picking on women’s choices, and reduce the mother penalty. I don’t think either approach is going to work. Getting women to have fewer children turned out to be easy. Getting them to have more will be extremely hard.