Why don't secular people in wealthy countries have kids?
All good analyses from you all. But let's consider something else: why do couples that have established careers decide at some point to have children? Is there a generative gene that we have not explored? Yes, children are time and money you all say. But, although trite, and I am not a religious person, "man cannot live by bread alone." Let's ask these couples and take note.
Your article is lengthy, thoughtful and data-driven; so please excuse my off-the-cuff comment. As a muslim-convert who is gay (so, no children); my American Muslim friends told me that my best friend from elementary school (YOB: 1965) should have 1 or 2 children with new wife. He was 50+ years old when they married in 2019. He already has several adult children from first marriage. My mouth dropped open in shock. Religion is definitely a factor. Among Muslims, children are as important as marriage.
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It is when I show up.
I do miss one point in this discussion, though. Is population growth sustainable? No, it isn’t. Even if the abortion ban in the US would deliver on its supposed aim, exponential population growth will always hit a wall of sustainability at one point. But Earth‘s resources are finite. We see people in the Sahel starving now! Untold tragedy will hit North Africa and all countries largely dependent on grain and fertilizer from Ukraine and Russia later this year. Turkey will be able to make a deal because they control the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, but others aren’t situated at such a convenient geostrategic spot.
With nearly 50% of ultra-orthodox men not working, I’m a little surprised that the poverty rate is only 2x higher than the general population.
Y’know, Claire, after reading CosmoGlob for over a year now, and enjoying your articles and insights — and comments — immensely, I am beginning to wonder if you have taken a vow of poverty, and have voluntarily shunned the world of globetrotting consultancy (earning megabuckage and many fine perks) in order to spend your valuable time being a one-woman research, writing, editing and marketing department. In the words of my old Great-Granpa (he from the Old Country), writing for a living, like anything else, is “Hard Graft” if you care about doing it right. I can only hope that whatever psychic/emotional rewards so earned are worth it to you, because reading your newsletter is becoming addictive: You, Claire, have become my ‘drug of choice’ (with caffeine and wine running neck and neck for second).
There are many reasons why secular people in wealthy countries don’t have more kids. One reason which has certainly affected our family planning is the popularization of ZPG — “Zero Population Growth” — that was all the rage when I was in grad school in the ‘70’s (actually, as I was at the University of Hawaii, the local version of the slogan was “Two Kiki (children), mo bettah!”).
There is another, more powerful reason: the fact that, even in highly industrialized countries, there are still only 24 hours in a day. While the incentive to earn money, prestige and higher social standing may drive women of child-bearing age to delay childbirth or abjure having children at all, the cost in terms of time and effort in bearing and raising children was a very significant factor for us both.
Taking care of children takes time, every day (and night), every year fo, let’s say, 18 years (more if children need it). It is satisfying in many ways, but it is hard work. It is relentless work, with no time off for weekends, holidays, or even sick days. The potential income foregone by our decision to have two children but no more was far less significant in our decision-making. Simply put, we had other plans for that time.
I do not believe that civilization is doomed to decline if every couple fails to do its duty and produce 2.1 offspring, and it does not necessarily involve immigration (though that certainly will play a part). The missing factor is productivity per worker. Just as the Industrial Revolution created new economies in making machines, and those machines helped industrialize agriculture which made farm work more productive (freeing more workers to seek more remunerative work in cities and factories), our ongoing digital revolution has made other forms of work more productive, i.we. Requiring fewer hours of human input to produce the same quantity of goods and services. Sure, this has been and will continue to be a disruptive process, meaning some jobs will disappear — workers in the field of typewriter manufacturing, sales and repair have dropped from (insert large number here) to nearly (pick a number between 0 - 100 here) to cite one example — but the trend now is doing more with less.
And while I agree immigration would be an excellent solution to declining fertility, I think we also nee much more economic growth. For immigration to be desirable to immigrants, economic opportunity is also the most significant factor for encouraging immigration. The big reason much more significant than secularism that people are having less kids is because there’s less opportunity and the cost of living has gotten too high. I think many educated women largely are losing the desire to start families because they simply can’t afford it. They have too much student debt. Housing is too expensive and scarce. Taxes are very high too. It’s very sad if people are having fewer kids who would otherwise want to, because economies have become so uncompetitive and opportunity so constrained. I think educated women would want to have families more if costs were cheaper. Women already have the choice to do whatever they want professionally. Now they need the ability to keep and build their own earnings and they need the ability to start doing that sooner, then they would want to have families. Without drastically reducing the cost of living by lifting zoning regulations, cutting government spending and reforming pensions, and lowering taxes people won’t want to have families because of the costs and lack of opportunity for their kids. We are foreclosing the future with regulations and welfare spending. And subsidizing childcare like in France as you mentioned is not enough to make it ecomically easier to have kids. Making it less difficult and making people actively want to have kids are two different things. I think declining birth rates parallel the economic stagnation slowing growth. But this could be temporary. If we slash some red tape and also lift every tariff like hell, and liberalize then under more abundant, advanced and cheap, bountiful conditions, I think educated women and men and everyone might have more kids again, because in an abundant society why the hell not?
It doesn’t follow from this innovation-depends on-secularism argument, that a country can’t develop economically with religion. Like you mention Turkey. As Mokyr notes, Christian values underlay much of the technological progress of the enlightenment. But there’s no question that as we reap more abundance, the belief in God which may have inspired and driven some of it, tends to go away. If Turkey developed economically while still being quite religious that’s not really anomalous. And surely I think if Turkey were to become a bigger economy and if it were to become a center of innovation, then it would lose its religiosity over time. Indeed for that kind of growth to happen, it couldn’t afford to be religious. Only open (or secular) societies can foster Schumpeterian growth
You wonder why economic growth makes a society more secular. I think I might have the answer to that question. In a book I read called A Culture of Growth which describes how the birth of the modern economy was influenced by the enlightenment, Joel Mokyr makes an association between technological and scientific progress, and the culture surrounding that, and the economic development precipitating the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Thus there’s a strong historical (and I think as well) a logical connection between economic growth and secular values. In order to have economic growth in the first place, you need technological innovation, and you need a culture of curiosity and an openness to new ideas for innovation. So it was natural that Schumpeterian growth would properly start during the enlightenment. Enlightenment values were the springboard for innovation, etc. a pro reason, pro facts and evidence, pro skepticism culture, perhaps even a disdain for suspersticion. The progress of the enlightenment, economically and culturally depended on man’s willingness to dethrone God, making man the measure of things with his ability to shape material reality and determine his own destiny. Mokyr in the book credits Francis Bacon with beginning the trend of what we would refer to as modern progress. Bacon was the first person to believe that we can access God and better serve him using science, and using technology to change the material world. Also for further reference, Susan Neiman’s book, “Evil in Modern Thought” is gives a fascinating historical overview in the beginning of how philosophers in early modern Europe attempted to reconcile their belief in progress with their belief in God which was very difficult for them. So I think you really can’t have proper economic growth without the cultural conditions which categorized broadly you can call secularism.
A similar problem is facing the ultra-orthodox communities in and around NYC. They've been accused of failing their male pupils and of physical abuse.
The interesting difference here is that local government and the press might not be as willing as Bibi to give them a pass.
I know that nationally, religions are being forced to face some hard truths about their conduct. The internet has given voice and community to a lot of strong counter-aplogetics and people telling stories of escaping harm. What might protect the ultra-orthodox is their strict insular nature. A lot of people who could be given liberty from a cult, won't find it if they're locked away from the surrounding culture.
The takeaway from this discussion is that the Law of Unintended Consequences is still in operation, and that it doesn't care what people believe or want.
If a declining birthrate is the inevitable consequence of development and modernization, then developed, modernizing societies are doomed to decline and stagnation. In the context of development and modernization, the most valuable form of capital is human capital. When that is lacking, development and modernization will come to a halt, then go into reverse. The grim irony of the situation in which we find ourselves is that modernity itself is drying up the sources of that capital.
Immigration may to a certain extent retard that process but can never reverse it. In the American context, immigration doves seem unable to grasp the social and cultural implications of large-scale immigration as a remedy for demographic decline. My own opinion is that it would create a permanent underclass doing those proverbial "jobs that Americans won't do"—an underclass ghettoized by language and cultural differences, exacerbated by low educational levels. Among this country's progressive elites, the traditional American "melting pot" has fallen into disrepute, and they'd see such immigrants as fodder for their debased ideology of multiculturalism. In short, immigration on a large scale would further destabilize American society. I leave aside the question of moral propriety raised by an immigration policy seeking to cream off the best educated members of Third World countries. The medical practice to which my doctor belongs includes a Nigerian physician who emigrated to America in his early thirties. That's one less physician in a country that sorely needs physicians.
As for the cause of the fertility decline in America and similar countries, I think it's too convenient by half to ascribe it to abstract factors like "modernization" and "development." Ideology has been at work on American women since the Sixties. Women's liberation, feminism, call it what you will, began by assuring women that they could have it all and when it turned out that no, they couldn't have it all, feminism began dictating to women what they should and should not want. That in the eyes of contemporary feminists, the position of Senior Vice President of Marketing at Giganticon Corporation is more desirable than marriage and family, is an undeniable reality. Because its original promises didn't pan out, feminism felt compelled to go to war with the institutions of marriage and the nuclear family. An unmistakable sign of this is the pro-choice tendency to portray pregnancy and childbirth as a dangerous, even life-threatening, medical condition.
American men too have taken their cue from feminism. Having been declared optional accessories, and being aware that women have easy access to birth control and abortion, today's young men don't see why sexual satisfaction should involve commitment.
That American women—and in the long run, men—have not been made happier by these formulations is a reality too obvious to belabor. And it hasn't been a day at the beach for American children, either. We hear a lot about "child-friendly policies" that turn out in practice to be proposals for lifting the burden of parenthood from parents and shifting it to the taxpayers. How friendly is that to the kids, really? How likely is it, indeed, that government programs can fill the void left by all that we've lost, all that we've discarded?
I find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that modernity is a suicide pact. Its technological side is, admittedly, a marvel. But the price—socially, culturally, spiritually—was high. And a balloon payment, it seems, is coming due.
What happens when (if?) all countries are industrialized to the level of the first world? Will every nation have a below replacement birth rate? If nothing changes that would seem to be the expected consequence. Where do the immigrants come from then?
Claire, there’s another factor related to fertility decline that hasn’t been mentioned yet; young men and young women are simply having much less sex than they once did. This fact is much discussed in both Korea and Japan. See,
It would not surprise me if the same reality was beginning to take hold in the United States and Europe.
Why young men and women are less interested in sexual relations than they once were is an interesting question. The ubiquity of pornography on the Internet may play a role. Another factor might be hook-up sites that facilitate sex but not longer term intimate relations that lead to childbirth.
But I suspect that at least in the United States it is more than that. Changing customs between men and women that started with the feminist movement and reached a climax with the “me too” movement has made it far more challenging for men and women to meet and have sex.
At many universities throughout the United States sexual partners (but in reality, males) are required by university rules to solicit affirmative consent for each and every incremental sexual act leading to copulation. This must contribute to a disincentive for young people to have sex.
Add to this the potential for young men to be accused of sexual abuse if a female partner later regrets her decision to participate in sexual relations and you have another major disincentive. The standard of proof (demanded by both the Obama and Biden Administrations that Trump temporarily eliminated) is so low, that sanctioning an innocent male is remarkably easy.
In addition to school, another place for young people to meet and form lasting relationships that lead to marriage and children is the workplace. Unfortunately, thanks to the excesses of the “me too” movement, it is very difficult for young people to meet partners at work. Unless the young people in question are on the identical level of the workplace hierarchy, even the most innocent and consensual relationships can be construed as harassment. We also shouldn’t forget that in certain quarters, heterosexuality is now viewed by society as inherently oppressive compared to other sexual proclivities.
Finally, there’s another factor that I wonder about. As sexual roles are evolving away from what they have been throughout much of human history, is it possible that men are becoming “feminized” and women are becoming masculinized? If this is indeed happening, is it possible that women are finding it harder to find men that they are sexually attracted to?