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February 12, 2013

Birth Rates, Critical Mass, and the Fear of Death

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

- Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare

In a post entitled "Be Fruitful and Multiply", Texan 99 ponders the consequences of declining birth rates:

I've always wondered why God found it necessary to tell us this. Or, if you're not a believer, why did a culture find it necessary to exhort its own members to reproduce? Don't we have a biological imperative? How did we get here otherwise; why did our ancestors survive? It's strange to observe that one of the most basic human drives is so vulnerable to collapse, especially once birth control comes into the picture.

Do humans in the current age still have a biological imperative to reproduce at the rates we once did? I wonder. There have been several articles on declining birth rates lately, generally accompanied by the usual hand-wringing about the scary possibility that "allowing" women to be educated or make their own choices may Turn Out Badly. Recently, all this female book-larnin' was blamed for declining marriage rates. Never mind that better educated/more accomplished women are the ones most likely to get and stay married:

...overall marriage rates have been slipping since 1980. But they have slipped less for educated women than for anyone else. Furthermore, college-educated women, once they do marry, are much less likely to divorce. As a result, by age 30, and especially at ages 35 and 40, college-educated women are significantly more likely to be married than any other group.

The math behind all these birth rate articles turns out to be rather interesting, too. Not only are educated women marrying more and divorcing less than their lower class counterparts - they are also (arguably) producing more children. Examining the relative shares of all children born to women aged 40-44 (women now past usual childbearing age) in 2010 shows that the largest share (30%) of children was born to mothers with at least a college degree. Moreover, fertility rates for educated women have actually increased over the last 15 years. How can this be?

...women with the least education did have more kids than their share of the population: 14 percent versus 10 percent. But there were twice as many children born to women who were college graduates. ... When it comes to childbearing, in other words, the highly educated are almost pulling their weight.

... Completed fertility rates have increased for those with more education, and decreased for those with less, from 1995 to 2010...

The numbers are somewhat counterintuitive, but if I understand the argument correctly it goes something like this:

1. Less educated women averaged more children, per woman.

2. But are fewer of them, so their relatively higher fertility doesn't contribute as much to the total number of children born.

3. More educated women averaged fewer children, per woman. But there are more of them. So although women with Masters' degrees constituted only 9% of women of childbearing age, they bore 11% of the children.

This appears to be bad news for the "How can we limit the trend of increasing female achievement before it kills us all?" crowd.

Longevity has to play a part in any calculation of the birth rates needed to perpetuate the species, because people are living (and working) longer than they have in the past. So does population growth over time, and the amount of land needed to feed the current population. Technology has to be factored in; we're growing more food on less land that our parents and grandparents did. T99 comments:

I wonder if we've managed the transition well in our own country to a culture in which no one need be fertile unless he or she chooses. How are the incentives for childbearing different now? When the choice whether to reproduce or not becomes unconstrained, what makes fathers willing to support their children and their children's mothers? What makes mothers willing to raise the children? You'd think it would be obvious, but the demographics tell us it's anything but. When people acquire choices for the first time, there can be a scary period in which we find out what new motives will operate, and what we have to offer each other to make it all keep working.

What strikes me most about this debate is how artificial most of it is. I suspect what we're really asking is not, "How many children do we need to preserve the species", but rather "How many children do we need to preserve our present [comfortable] way of life?" Most of questions I'm seeing have more to do with the economics of Social Security and the welfare state than they do with the survival of the human race.

Incentives depend on our current circumstances. Why do we assume that, given different circumstances (perhaps a precipitous decline in our standard of living or an existential threat to human survival), women - and men, whose choices matter too - would make the same choices we make today in the presence of unprecedented abundance?

Like most conservatives, I worry about the decline of faith in public life. Very few modern institutions support the notion that individuals have a duty to anything larger than themselves. Thankfully, our President is doing his utmost to resurrect antiquated concepts like duty by sternly demanding that we practice his unique brand of "economic patriotism", even if it's no more sustainable than electric cars or the solar industry.

How concerned should we be about a culture in which no one is fertile unless they choose to be in a world where population growth looks like this?

Part of the answer has to do with whether we're concerned about the survival of the human race, or only the survival of our own culture. The human race has a way of figuring things out. When we don't, natural population control mechanisms like war, famine, and disease have a self-correcting effect.

If, on the other hand, what we're really concerned with is the survival of our own culture, which parts are we trying to preserve, and why? Is having little choice about things as basic as how many children a couple will have an integral part of our culture and our values? Or was it largely a natural byproduct of the technology and resources available to us at the time? Did our grandparents have children out of some notion that they owed it to the culture to make babies? Or were most of them more focused on their own upbringing and aspirations?

I have faith in the ability of culture to adjust to changing circumstances. When we extrapolate from the present, we're not very good at taking natural corrective mechanisms into account. To paraphrase a popular maxim, if things can't continue indefinitely, they won't. And when that happens, future generations will take their current circumstances into account.

We see the past and future through such distorted lenses. For some reason, Tex's post reminded me of a trip we took to Europe several years ago. 2004 was a difficult year. We lost a Marine in our command to suicide. A few days later, my nephew was diagnosed with a virulent strain of leukemia.

I often wonder how different our trip would have been, had we taken it in a different year.

As it was, we spent most of our time visiting churches and cathedrals in Paris, London, and Rome. We're not regular churchgoers, so the acute awareness of death had to have something to do with that. For as long as I live, I will never forget how moved I was by the Sainte Chappelle, built in the 13th century:

Standing inside it was like being transported into a kaleidoscope: every square inch of floor, window, wall or ceiling was lavishly and painstakingly decorated. It was a riot of color.

And I kept thinking, "Who would ever build something like this now?" Compared to 13th century Parisians, we have so many tools; so much money. They had to do all of this by hand. And their lives were so short. The world we live in would be unimaginable to the men who built the Sainte Chappelle, yet they who had so much less to work with created something that is still capable of striking our jaded, postmodern hearts dumb with wonder.

It was larger than man, grander than anything I have seen before or since. It's not so much that the shadow of death was lifted from my heart, but more that it no longer had the same power.

The infinite abundance we take for granted (and seek to preserve) has all but banished the immediate fear of death, disease, and abject poverty from our daily lives. But I can't help believing that that fear - that sorrow, and the perspective that comes with it - is where the greatest human accomplishments come from.

Perhaps we fear the wrong things?

Posted by Cassandra at February 12, 2013 07:07 PM

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Yes, at the end I agree with you. We fear the wrong things.

At my grandmother's funeral, when I was a boy, I remember they read of this Psalm: "...a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates."

I remember I asked, for I did not understand, why should such a woman fear God? But I see now what I did not understand, for then I was a child, and had not learned wickedness.

They understood, of old. It is not education we should fear, not of women nor of men. It is other things. Some fears are good for you, it turns out. My sins are all the sins of fearlessness.

Posted by: Grim at February 12, 2013 11:57 PM

My sins are all the sins of fearlessness

Age has a marvelous way of remedying fearlessness :) But I understand what you're saying, Grim.

Posted by: Cass at February 13, 2013 12:00 AM

It must be apparent that there are two cultures in play at the present time. The one that adheres to some, at times minimal but still significant degree, of what it is that makes up culture and what advances it, has some degree of success reproducing itself and advancing the culture. The one that doesn't fails both culturally and individually. We, our society and culture, as presently constituted, may be the greatest lab experiment ever undertaken. In these cages are the rabbits, the ones that marry and have children/families. In having produced the basic element of society, the family, they encourage concern and interest; more than that naturally inherent in the self, than the selves, but in all that surrounds them. In the other cages you have the rats, aborting, breeding indiscriminately, without structure, with little concern for themselves, less for others, and none for most. If the evidence does not convince to the great importance of family and to the great importance of, not only its survival but its promotion, without adulteration, then one may assume treachery.

As to the fertility rates of the educated women, I wonder. The greatest disparity, to the plus side, is at the advanced degree levels. It would seem intelligence, diligence, breeds intelligence/diligence and the 'educated' just breed – it does not surprise.

Finally, there are no more beautiful structures built by man than the Cathedrals, no greater than the pyramids. They have it in common that the builders were well acquainted with the concept of the eternal. We, not so much; neither temporally, nor spiritually.

Posted by: George Pal at February 13, 2013 10:49 AM

We fell down on the job when it came to breeding.

My wife wanted a passel of kids when we got married; I didn't, because I came from a large family and saw what it did to my mother. I also didn't think we could have too many kids if my wife worked and we moved a lot in the military. Nature came to my rescue, sort of, when after our second child, the doctors told us that the odds were 50/50 of my wife having a healthy pregnancy, with the downside of forcing my wife to have an abortion or die should we fall on the wrong side of the 50/50. Good old Rh- and Rh+ problems.

But our two kids are doing okay; one has 4 kids and the other has 3. In both cases, the wives are stay-at-home moms, which is really the only way a family can live cheaply enough to make ends meet when there are a bunch of kids. Working full-time at anything under $30K per year simply doesn't alow one to break even on child-care and extra food expenses (cooking from scratch is much cheaper than buying prepared foods).

I know that when my wife worked while the kids were little, all her earnings went into child-care and taxes, but she needed to work because it was her calling: she was a teacher. Later on, as the kids got older, she went into administration (some physical issues got in the way of continuing in the classroom), and that's when the family started gaining an economic benefit from her work.

But it's not easy, having and raising kids to be productive members of society.

Posted by: Rex at February 13, 2013 11:15 AM

Outstanding post, Cass. One of your best.
There's a lot here for me to chew on, but let me posit one brief thought: I am pretty sure that all of my children were conceived on Saturday mornings (which is not uncommon, at least according to people who study such things). I attribute this to phenomena primarily to the confluence of two factors: (1) both husband and wife are at home at the same time, and (2) there is an unlimited supply of very loud Saturday morning cartoons to distract and entertain existing knuckleheads for extended periods without adult supervision.

I propose, therefore, that to ensure sustainable population growth we should add to the calendar one additional Saturday morning every six weeks (approximately 8.67 extra Saturdays per year). Obviously, we can't just add 8.67 days to the calendar, so I propose further that we get the extra days by eliminating an equal number of Tuesdays, a notorious slow day for both baby making and cartoons (according to experts).

I'm sure that I'll have more blinding insights later, but for the moment I've probably used up my allotment of your readers' patience.

Still, it's a very good piece. Thank you.

Posted by: spd rdr at February 13, 2013 11:33 AM

Well, first of all I'm glad you enjoyed the post :)

Sometimes I go off on tangents and think to myself (mostly b/c I lack the ability to think to other people), "Well that was an hour of my life that I will never get back - no one's going to read this..."

I had forgotten that we had a big, hairy discussion about declining birth rates back in 2008, but I was a little surprised to find that I see the whole thing a little more positively now.

Rex's comment underscores a thought I had when I read Tex's post for the first time:

My wife wanted a passel of kids when we got married; I didn't, because I came from a large family and saw what it did to my mother.

I think that in our zeal to defend traditional cultural values, we sometimes fetishize the way things used to be. Through those rose colored glasses, we see all the good and none of the bad.

I was lucky to have two very easy pregnancies (though the second time the docs kept trying to find things wrong with me) and two uncomplicated deliveries. I remember telling one of my many sisters in law, "Childbirth is a piece of cake".

Except it wasn't, for her.

Her first left her with physical injuries that required surgery to fix and it was a good year before she was fully recovered. This is a young woman in excellent physical shape, mind you. And though I very much wanted more children, my husband (who is from a larger family than mine) remembered the problems his Mom had had, and that affected his thinking on the right family size for us.

I love children, but having been a full time Mom I can easily understand why religions had to exhort the faithful to be fruitful and multiply. Parenting is hard work, there are risks, and even the best parents sometimes have a child with problems no amount of love or care can solve. When that happens, it can be devastating to marriages and even entire families. It can also be the making of some families when they find the grace and strength to accept the hand they've been dealt.

I also think of what happened to my other sister in law - the anguish of losing a child. Where you give your heart, you risk heartbreak.

I still think having kids is so worth the risk and expense, but I do understand why people who have a choice might choose to limit their family size because we made that decision ourselves and I was glad to have that ability. I got pregnant so easily (even when using birth control) that I'm pretty sure we would have had at least one unplanned child if we'd had to rely on conventional birth control for the next 25 years.

These are decisions families need to make for themselves, I think. I don't have a problem with churches arguing that we have a duty to be fruitful and multiply because religion isn't compulsory. But I also understand the flip side of that particular coin.

That said, I am all for spd's proposal wrt extra Saturdays :)

Posted by: Cass at February 13, 2013 12:34 PM

George, I loved your entire comment, but particularly this:

Finally, there are no more beautiful structures built by man than the Cathedrals, no greater than the pyramids. They have it in common that the builders were well acquainted with the concept of the eternal. We, not so much; neither temporally, nor spiritually.

I think religion gives us a sense of the eternal, and families a sense of continuity and our place in the big scheme of things.

There is nothing like watching kids grow up (whether they're your own or someone else's) to humble a person. I love the flashes of family members, living and long dead, in a toddler's facial expressions or behavior.

Or the way a child can look like one family member for years, and they they hit puberty and suddenly (as though hidden under the skin) out pops another family member. Kind of like in the movie, "Alien" :p

My youngest looked so much like his Dad and his father's side of the family until he was 13 or so. We have a bunch of pictures from a ski trip to Taos, and everyone who has seen them says the same thing: "Wow. I never realized #2 son looked so much like you!"

But I look at those same pictures and see my father. I have a young niece who is far prettier than I ever was as a young lady, but who really does resemble me very closely.

We're such an odd mix of genetics, culture, and upbringing. Watching it all play out never fails to fascinate me.

Posted by: Cass at February 13, 2013 01:24 PM

"Be Fruitful and Multiply".

Yes Lord, we've done that. Now what?

Looking at the growth curve, I'm reminded of a modeling project from years back that made use of a population growth projection: A Gompertz curve. A long period of slow growth, a population explosion, and a longer period of slower growth as surplus resources dwindle.

It appears that from a "survival of the species" perspective we've just hit the inflection point. Roughly 60% of the max population growth occurs *after* the inflection point. The growth rate slows, but it continues a very long time. The species will not die out anytime soon.

From a cultural perspective, I think the neighboring cultures matter more. The Amish seem to have survived fairly well without an exploding population. Largely because the dominant culture is willing to leave it alone.

If Isreal were to lose half it's population while it's neighbors, who would love to slaughter it, were to increase theirs 10 fold, they might have a problem. While Isreal holds a major qualitative advantage in technology, sometimes quantity has a quality all its own.

In the US, we don't really have to worry about invading armies from a different culture, but there are definite subcultures that people don't want to leave alone. For example: gun owners from the Left and non-English speakers from the Right.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 13, 2013 01:41 PM


I had never had children and had such a dim and dour outlook on life that I was a fully formed and robust curmudgeon at age 30 – and a really really grouchy one to boot. Then my sister presented me with three nephews who had entirely changed my outlook and to an extent that I would have not thought possible. Excepting creating life, is there anything better in life than being the wickedly louche uncle. My only regret was not having a niece.

People don't change! Balderdash! Most everyone has the ingredients stored within them - they only need the proper catalyst – someone to dote on other than themselves.

Posted by: George Pal at February 13, 2013 02:01 PM

How much does later marriage affect birth rates? I've always wanted children of my own, but wasn't one to put the cart before the horse... I was 41 by the time I met the man I will marry. I will be 43 when we wed. We've known we're going to be working against the clock in regard to having children, but it's gotten a little more real this week. We're taking a Natural Family Planning class (no, it's not the old "rhythm method" - it teaches how to observe a woman's natural cycles and working with them to either avoid or achieve pregnancy. I've been charting since mid-December. And with the latest cycle, it's glaringly obvious I've hit perimenopause. We always knew we weren't going to be able to dilly-dally to much in trying to get pregnant, but now we realize we probably shouldn't try to put it off at all, once we are married...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at February 13, 2013 09:38 PM

Have you spoken to your minister or priest about this, MLB? If you're concerned that you need to wait until the marriage is fully formalized for reasons of moral health, I suspect the conversation might be helpful. I'm not sure precisely what your faith is, but certainly the reading I've done into Christian moral philosophy on marriage suggests that it would not be wrong -- assuming you are both fully committed to making the marriage, and want children -- to proceed in accord with nature here. I'm fairly certain that Aquinas would endorse that position, based on his writings about what he calls the principle end of matrimony. I would talk with whomever you consider your spiritual adviser.

Posted by: Grim at February 13, 2013 10:24 PM

And there is always the adoption avenue.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at February 14, 2013 08:57 AM

Do you know what I hate about Valentine's Day?
The radio was playing "the pina colada song" when I turned on the car. In the ensuing 0.00003 seconds that it took me to scream and smash the off button, the damage had been done.

The whole effin' day is shot.

Posted by: spd rdr at February 14, 2013 09:47 AM

I truly loathe that song.

It may amuse you knuckle draggers to know that women sometimes feel oppressed by VDay too. I am behind the proverbial 8 ball this year b/c the spouse has been very good about thoughtful gestures of late and I have... not.

It has nothing to do with him. It's just that work has been a madhouse and I've been sick for the past 3 weeks, so it has been a struggle just to schlep to my desk every day and not take sick leave or miss deadlines.

I tend not to do much for Hallmark holidays b/c I learned pretty early on that if I made a big deal over them, I expected the spouse to do the same (and then I got all butthurt - sorry, I know that's crude but it's so apt and it makes me laugh - if he didn't reciprocate). So rather than set him up for failure, I just focused on other things.

But there was a clever trap there: since I wasn't pressuring him to remember holidays, the big so-and-so went ahead and did it anyway! How inconsiderate is THAT!!!11!

So now I feel guilty (even though he never makes me feel that way) about being the one who is not holding up her end of things. The Unit really needs to get with the program here, or else I'm going to have to greet him at the door in a Phrench maid outfit and a blonde wig after a long day of meetings :p

Oh, the humanity!

Posted by: Cass at February 14, 2013 10:06 AM

We're getting married in the Catholic church. It's a new revelation, so we haven't really talked to anyone else about it. The wedding is just over 5 months away. I have to fit into a bridesmaid dress for my sister's wedding in May (just under 3 months away) and I need to fit into my bridal gown, so I wasn't really planning on being pregnant on my wedding day :-P

It's more that once we're married, we shouldn't purposely try to avoid pregnancy since the unknown deadline got a little more real this week.

On the other hand, we had discussed adoption very early on. We both knew getting (and then staying) pregnant might be harder just because of my age in particular. If we can't have a child of our own, we will consider adoption...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at February 14, 2013 10:48 AM

"In the US, we don't really have to worry about invading armies from a different culture . . . ." Hmmmm.

The reason that article about birthrates caught my eye was that there seems something so wrong about the notion that birthrates fall when women become educated. What about education should make women less inclined to embrace the future? What does that say about what we mean by education? What does it say about the extent to which many cultures on Earth can't survive a cosmopolitan perspective? (That's assuming that a culture-wide rejection of child-bearing can be said to reflect a rejection of the culture or its future.)

Is it possible that people used routinely, on average, to reproduce at above-replacement rates only because they had no choice? That they had a sex drive rather than a reproduction drive?

Posted by: Texan99 at February 15, 2013 12:51 AM

Is it possible that people used routinely, on average, to reproduce at above-replacement rates only because they had no choice? That they had a sex drive rather than a reproduction drive?

That was the logical interpretation (at least to me) of your question and I think the answer is almost certainly, "yes".

How else can we explain the stunning number of unintended pregnancies (and abortions) that happen now, when we have cheap and easily available birth control? If having a baby were really a carefully thought out/rational choice, I don't think that would be happening.

Posted by: Cass at February 15, 2013 07:52 AM

That's very much in accord with Aquinas also, Tex & Cass. The reason the institution of marriage is so important, he argues in part, is that (a) not only producing but educating children to adulthood is a critical function, and (b) it's really quite difficult, requiring strong institutional support. That's the reason it is so important to have a properly structured institution, and for the rest of society to support it.

Posted by: Grim at February 15, 2013 12:50 PM