Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Do Fewer Babies Create Happier Humans and Better Societies?

Does fewer babies mean national oblivion or human flourishing?

Remember when, during the baby boom, pundits were in a panic about how the food supply was never going to be able to keep up with all the new mouths to feed? We were all going to starve! Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb lit the flame of that incendiary discussion. Well, that’s history.

But we’re not supposed to calm down. Now there’s a new source of panic. All those women with their empty cradles are going to spell the end of civilization! How are nations supposed to endure when more and more women are choosing to have fewer and fewer children, or none at all? (I discussed some of this previously in “How two white men are coaxing American women to have kids”.)

There’s even a magic number in this discussion: 2.1. That’s how many babies women need to have, on the average, in order to replace both parents and keep the population from shrinking. (The number has to be greater than two because some babies don’t live long.)

In nearly half of all countriesrich and poor, Western world and in the Eastthe fertility rate has slipped beneath the critical 2.1. (The U.S. is at about that level.) Prognosticators and even some scholars are predicting economic doom. The military-minded are worried about shrinking forces. Nations are busying themselves coming up with even more ways to encourage women to have more kids.  

Amidst all this conventional wisdom is a whole different point of view. In the New York Times earlier this month, Michael Teitelbaum and Jay Winter, authors of The Global Spread of Fertility Decline: Population, Fear, and Uncertainty, argued that “slower population growth creates enormous possibilities for human flourishing.” They are not concerned that nations are shrinking into oblivion: “Even when the total fertility rate falls below 2.1 children, the ‘momentum’ effects of earlier fertility trends will keep a population growing for many decades.”

Teitelbaum and Winter do not deny that there are risks and challenges posed by declining fertility rates worldwide. (Read their entire essay or their book for a detailed consideration.) But they also recognize the hopeful possibilities. Below are their key arguments for why few babies can mean greater good for individuals and societies. (Keep in mind that we can’t do true experiments to study the implications of different levels of fertility, so we cannot make causal statements.)

#1 “…fertility decline is associated nearly everywhere with greater rights and opportunities for women. The deferral of marriage and the reduction of births to two, one, or none across so much of the world…are broadly consistent with the higher educational attainment and career aspirations of young women.” [Bella’s editorial comment: Not just the “deferral of marriage” but the skipping entirely of marriage is also consistent with those positive outcomes.]

#2 “…the work forces of societies with low-to-moderate fertility rates often achieve higher levels of productivity than do higher fertility societies.”

#3 “The fewer children who need primary and secondary education, the more resources there are that can be invested in higher-quality education per child…and in expanding access to higher and continuing education for teenagers and young adults.”

#4 “…by enhancing the employment and career experiences of young adults, lower fertility can also bring about greater social and political stability.”

#5 “…lower fertility rates may gradually reduce the incentives that have led a surprisingly large number of governments to encourage the emigration of their own young citizens, both to find work and send home hard-currency savings, as well as to remove them from potential political activism at home.”

On this Mother’s Day and perhaps every other day, if you are fortunate enough to still have your mother, hug her and celebrate her. But if you have never had kids, or if you have had fewer kids than other people think you should have, and you are tempted to feel badly about that for reasons that go beyond the personal…well, forget about it. Maybe you are doing the nation some good.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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