The Empty Cradle

Lost within all the other panics and fears that consume our nation today is one that would astound those who only 50 years ago were convinced that global overpopulation would doom our planet to inevitable, large scale famine and deplete every one of our vital natural resources: the global baby bust. Although there are variations from nation to nation, the broad trend—which is particularly notable in more liberal and developed nations such as the United States—is that our birth rates are continuing to trend down below the number needed to maintain current national populations. Our global population is rapidly graying, and researchers continue to argue about the causes and speculate about the long-term outcomes. Here in America the 2018 birth rate hit a 32 year low, which speaks to a demographic disaster potentially lurking ahead. 

There certainly seem to be biological factors at play here that more than likely are caused by the crazy chemical soup we all are forced to live in today. Many have pointed out that the desire for human intimacy rather than pornography seems to be declining among the young, and more and more young adults seem to lack any motivation to reproduce—or even, as a start, to form a couple.

In addition, sperm counts among men living in industrialized nations have declined markedly over the past half century, and more women report problems with conceiving that may not only be attributable to the many pollutants making our sperm disappear. It seems more than likely that the chemicals around us also affect female desire and fertility. As much as we might like to believe that we understand every facet of the human reproduction processes of both men and women, much still remains a mystery. What we actually know about the intricate processes of fertility and lust might lag far behind our acknowledged expertise at building cell phones and playing video games.

However, the question of why birth rates are declining often circles back to a rather simplistic answer for many: Feminism has, to their way of thinking, produced several generations of women who no longer want to be the hand that rocks the cradle.

This explanation has a certain attraction because it dovetails neatly with the large-scale entry of American women into the workplace. After all, so the reasoning goes, why should women focus on family when they can use the same time and energy to choose to build a career?

Although some women—and some men as well—manage to find careers that nurture their souls and provide such great fulfillment that it actually replaces the need for love and family, the harsh truth is that most of us work in order to survive. A great deal of work is, simply put, just a lot of plain hard work, so the vast majority of the female population that is neither a movie star nor a supermodel is just grinding it out—day by day.

Some works pays better, offers a modicum of societal respect, provides friendships, and is less likely to break your back or frazzle your nerves, but the notion that women are ditching motherhood in order to revel in the joys of stocking shelves at Walmart or dealing with cranky customers at the drive-through window is nonsensical. Even those with higher status professional jobs deal each day with the same frustrations (with perhaps some extra ones tossed in) as men working these demanding jobs in a rapidly changing and unforgiving global economy that excels at producing outsourced mid-career burnouts.

It is, however, certainly true that better opportunities for women in the workplace have tended to degrade the respect accorded to women who decide to devote themselves to hearth and home. Moreover, modern birth control defeats nature’s plan by decoupling intimacy from reproduction. This short circuit of biology both transforms motherhood from an inevitability into a distant “maybe” and also teaches men that they are free to enjoy all the lust they can wrangle without the complex entanglements of family commitment. Neither of these outcomes is pro-natal or pro-nurturing, and the resultant epidemic of sexually-transmitted diseases—not to mention a lot of hurt and betrayal—tends to further suppress the possibilities for love and procreation.

However, one outcome of rapidly declining birth rates receives scant attention: the incompatibility of a country with many fewer children and the modern, expansive liberal state. Big government in all of its manifestations requires an ever increasing pool of taxpayers to foot the bills. Any interruption in supply creates a financial doom loop from which politicians cannot escape: More spending + fewer future taxpayers = skyrocketing government debt + higher taxes. Raising taxes on a diminishing pool of taxpayers eventually crashes into cruel mathematical reality, which must eventually lead to deep cuts in government programs or government default, which tends to be a real bummer for politicians and political appointees who love to spend other people’s money.

We are already seeing the leading edges of this problem in the form of increasingly shaky pension and retirement systems that are rapidly reaping the inevitable whirlwind of fewer younger workers paying in— and many more older workers taking out. An aging population also demands more medical attention, needs more help with daily tasks, and requires different types of housing and transportation than are now available in many towns and cities. To say that, as a nation, we are unprepared for the many societal, cultural, and financial challenges that lie dead ahead is likely the understatement of this young millennium.

Many suggest—for reasons both practical and political— that welcoming more immigrants is the natural solution to declining birth rates in America. However, persistent questions about the financial utility of current immigrant populations and the long-term prospects for any nation that must import its population in order to survive have led to a ferocious nativist sentiment that is driving far more conservative approaches to immigration policy. This same dynamic is arising in many nations that have traditionally been agreeable to substantial immigration, so it might be best to presume this will not be the consensus solution to declining birth rates in America and other developed countries.

It may well be the case that America will need to adopt aggressive tax and spending policies to explicitly encourage Americans to have more children, although it must be acknowledged that policies of this type have met with decidedly mixed success in other nations. Moreover, it might be difficult to convince dour young Americans who often seem quite downbeat about their own futures, the future of our nation, and the future of the planet to start breeding like rabbits because it would collide with their own personal and political imperatives. Babies have a stupendous carbon footprint, produce a lot of methane, and require a lot of plastic—none of which is likely to change. Humanity is messy, smelly, and intrusive. Sorry about that.

There will, of course, be those who express their glee at any move toward our self-extinction. Working from the premise that our presence is an affront to the purity of our planet, these folks will be the same ones squatting on composting toilets and insisting that children are a plague upon the world. I agree that babies can be screechy, children are sometimes annoying, teenagers often act like annoying know-it-alls, and our adult lives are typically less than ideal.

However, I also know we are capable of creating wonders, enjoying beauty, exhibiting compassion—and making great sacrifices for those whom we love. Perhaps we are not wholly undeserving of children, despite the many difficulties we and our planet face today.