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Which is the more powerful agent of social change: fear or sympathy? Women in rich and middle-income countries may soon find themselves enrolled in a real-life experiment testing this proposition. That is because birth rates are dropping in much of the world. Demographics may soon rocket to the top of the political agenda, demanding an entirely new way of thinking about women and motherhood and the economy.

One reason for the shift was, as it were, born in the USA. That is because, for a long time, the United States has watched declining birth rates in places like Western Europe, Russia and even China with an air of superiority. The United States, lusty and fertile, was bucking the demographic trends.

Then, last week, new data showed that in 2011, the U.S. birth rate fell to the lowest level ever recorded – 63.2 babies per 1,000 women of child-bearing age.

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Crucially, immigrant women, whose fecundity had been holding up the U.S. numbers, opted out of the maternity ward in the greatest numbers. According to analysis done by the Pew Research Center, the birth rate for women born in the United States fell by 6 per cent between 2007 and 2010. For foreign-born women in the United States, the drop was 14 per cent. Among Mexican immigrant women, the rate plunged 23 per cent.

This is a big change for the United States, bringing the birth rate in the country more closely in line with those of the rest of the developed world. The total fertility rate in the United States, a measure of the total number of children the average woman is likely to have, in 2011 was 1.89.

A recent study led by Joel Kotkin for the Civil Service College of Singapore found that the U.S. rate was edging toward European numbers: 1.54 for Greece, 1.48 for Italy and 1.5 for Spain. In rich Asian countries, including Japan and Singapore, the rate has fallen even more sharply. Even in many middle-income and poor countries, the level has fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1 – to 1.89 in Vietnam and 1.9 in Brazil.

These figures, particularly the recent decline in the United States, have prompted a chorus of cultural lamentation.

Mr. Kotkin, for example, sees the falling birth rate as the central feature of what he calls "post-familialism," a new form of social organization that prizes liberation, personal happiness and perhaps even a "hip" urban aesthetic over the more traditional values of community and self-sacrifice.

This cultural critique – made, not accidentally, mostly by men – misses the central fact about falling birth rates. They are, above all, driven by decisions by women. And, in the countries where we have seen birth rates drop, they are about decisions driven by women who face three defining facts.

First, women have the historically unprecedented power to control their own fertility.

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Second, the old close-knit family and community ties that once supported child-rearing have been severed by industrialization and urbanization, and not much has emerged to take their place.

Third, women's economic circumstances have been transformed. Women in countries where birth rates have fallen tend to be richer than were previous generations with higher birth rates or their sisters in countries where the birth rate is still high.

But that shift masks some other important characteristics in the life of the middle-class woman in middle- and high-income countries.

She is more likely than ever to work – and to need to work to maintain her family's middle-class status. She is also more likely to live in a society in which a great deal of time and money must be invested in each child to ensure his or her future success. And, particularly in Europe and the United States, family income has probably stagnated or increased only marginally over the past decade, and certainly since the recent recession.

It is tempting, particularly if you happen to be an affluent man, to frame any choice about child-bearing in the lofty language of moral philosophy, to see it as a decision between valuing personal fun in the present over service in the interests of others – one's children and one's society – in the future.

But the truth is that for most women, children are the most delightful and luxurious of consumer goods. (Full disclosure – I am the mother of three.) They are, however, expensive, both in terms of time and in terms of money, and more and more women in middle-income and upper-income societies are judging, with considerable sadness, that they simply cannot afford to have as many children as they would like.

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This is where the question of fear versus sympathy comes in. For decades, feminists have been demanding that we come up with better ways for women to be both mothers and full members of modern society. That has often been dismissed as a "women's issue." So we have not addressed it – and now women are voting with their wombs.

Before long, we will collectively begin to appreciate that the future of our societies, and indeed of humanity itself, depends on finding a better, collective solution to this predicament.

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