Is It Time To Panic About Birth Rates?

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As births per 1,000 women aged 15-44 hit the lowest point on record, Douthat worries about "cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change":

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. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

Bouie cringes at Douthat's "hostility to the entire modern project of human flourishing at the cost of traditional obligations":

The simple fact is that it’s only been in the last century that a substantial number of ordinary people have been been able to build decent lives free of severe hardship. … That is especially true for women, who seem to be the chief target of Douthat’s disdain.

Douthat defends himself against such criticisms:

[I]f we have moral obligations to future, as-yet-unborn generations, as almost everyone seems to agree, surely those duties have to include some obligation for somebody to bring those generations into existence in the first place — to imitate the sacrifices that our parents made, and give another generation the chances that we’ve had? And if that basic obligation exists in some form, then surely there comes a point when a culture in which it’s crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures can be aptly described as … what’s the word I’m looking for …decadent?

Meanwhile, the Population Reference Bureau's Carl Haub explains that the US's birth rate isn't collapsing. Haub recommends looking at the total fertility rate (TFR) – the average number of babies a women has in her lifetime – which hit 1.89 in 2011, up from 1.74 in 1976:

The TFR is "blind"—unaffected by age structure—and in showing the implied number of children women would have at today’s rate, is directly comparable over the years: apples to apples. This may be a tad confusing, but consider this: If the pace of childbearing were the same today as it was in 1976, the U.S. would have had 3.7 million births instead of the 3.9 million it did have. Why choose 1976? Because that was the year the TFR was the lowest in U.S. history and it still is. Not 2011.

Stephen Bronars, who provides the above chart, adds:

The total fertility rate has consistently underestimated the number of children ever born at times when young women are delaying childbearing longer than women from earlier birth cohorts … Although women age 15-19 and 20-24 today may have lower fertility rates than their older sisters and mothers had at the same age, they are also likely to give birth to more children in their thirties and forties than their older sisters and mothers did.

So does that mean that the US doesn't face a population problem? No – but it's a different one, argues Noah Millman. He says the real source of potential economic imbalance is our increasingly long lives:

The biggest problem Japan has is that they have too many old people. This is partly a function of rapidly-rising longevity, which cannot be solved by increasing fertility. … The problem of longevity can only be solved either by extending one’s working life beyond historic norms, or by advances in productivity that make it possible to maintain a large dependent population on a smaller workforce, or by reduced overall standards of living.

I have more faith in human beings and our adaptability than Ross has, although his concerns are obviously in good faith. (The difference between a conservative and a reactionary is that for the conservative, human beings always have some kind of adaptable future. Reactionaries see only a cultural collapse.) I'd add one thought experiment to explain what Ross rightly sees as a universal decline in reproduction as wealth accumulates. Perhaps we are collectively realizing that with our civilization becoming environmentally unsustainable, the only way forward is with a lower global population of human beings. Given the destructive carbon everyone of us emits, it's actually part of caring about the future that birth rates are declining. This may be a by-product of a civilization structured around material well-being; it may also be a safety valve.