Busting America’s Baby Bust Argument

4 years ago

It’s hard to find a Childfree book or blog out there that doesn’t cite a desire not to contribute to overpopulation as a pretty solid reason not to have kids. So imagine my surprise when I opened a letter from my mom* and out tumbled a clipping of the Wall Street Journal’s “America’s Baby Bust” article, with the dramatic subtitle:

The nation’s falling fertility rate is the root cause of many of our problems. And it’s only getting worse.

But for such a strongly worded opening, the article falls short of explaining just what all those problems are, and how they stack up against the alternative – the pile of issues that arise in times of overpopulation. Jonathan Last, who penned the article, warns against the decline in innovation associated with low-fertility societies, but focuses mostly on the economic impact of an aging population, saying…

They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees.

Baby Bottle

Corbis; Photo Illustration by Keith A. Webb/The Wall Street Journal

Call me a pessimist, but I haven’t for one moment believed I’ll see a dime of social security when I round into my sixties. It’s why I started dutifully putting away fifty percent of my Burger King paycheck at the ripe young age of 15. It’s why Drew and I are pretty aggressive with our 401k and ROTH contributions.

And guess what – it’s part of the #1 reason why Drew and I are reluctant to have kids: we’re not sure we can afford them. Not having kids is a pretty darn good way to ensure we won’t have to rely on a potentially non-existent social security system some day. To suggest that we need to have babies to create more workers so someone will potentiallyfund our social security payouts seems, well, a bit like going about things the hard way. Or at the very least, a seriously high-stakes gamble.

And yet, Last believes that…

If our fertility rate were higher—say 2.5, or even 2.2—many of our problems would be a lot more manageable.

But what about the bajillion problems that would be entirely unmanageable if we got that fertility rate up that high? Do we really need to send more kids into already over-crowded classrooms to get a crap education? Do we need working moms to increase the number of days they need to be out with a sick child? More kids on welfare? More crowded prisons? Less places for me to buy already outrageously overpriced homes in Southern California? More energy, water and trees being used up for diapers, laundry and homework?


Not referencing these, the article instead shifts focus to the source of the decrease:

There’s a constellation of reasons for this decline: Middle-class wages began a long period of stagnation. College became a universal experience for most Americans, which not only pushed people into marrying later but made having children more expensive. Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men. More important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing. And the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.

This is only a partial list, and many of these developments are clearly positive.

Many of them are positive? Which of them aren’t – that part about people focusing education, or the one about women having careers? I’m about the furthest thing from a feminist, but even I was a little ruffled by that one. But even more disturbing was the follow-up passage on happiness:

There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that “happiness” is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we’re going to reverse this decline, we’ll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.

Mere happiness? Sort of a dismissive adjective for such a life-altering,. The Dalai Lama told us the purpose of our lives is to be happy. Thomas Jefferson found it important enough to name as one of our unalienable rightsin the Declaration of Independence, placed on the same shelf as life and liberty. I’m going go ahead and argue that a life without happiness isn’t worth living. Is it not then worthy of being a primary (if not the only) consideration in making major life choices? Perhaps he meant to say fleeting or temporary or shallow happiness as most people do who are so quick to judge the Childfree. But he didn’t, so I suppose we’re left to assume that happiness in general shouldn’t be considered a marker for the well-lived life.

He does, however, have a solution for making the act of parenting a happier and easier state of being, believing that…

The government cannot persuade Americans to have children they do not want, but it can help them to have the children they do want.

His remedy? Tax breaks, higher education reform and additional telecommuting options. A good (if not unfair for the Childfree) start. But what about the other things that make it so difficult to raise children today? Insufficient maternity leave policies in a workplace that expects total career dedication? Insane childcare costs? Grandparents, aunts and uncles spread out across the world and entirely unavailable to share the burden? Dora the Explorer videos on loop?

I get it. There are significant economic and social impacts that go along with a fledgling fertility rate. But it seems strange to ignore the glaring problems associated with trying to place the load of parenting responsibilities on a society ill-equipped to handle it gracefully. Stranger still to sum it all up with Mr. Last’s closing statement:

If we want to continue leading the world, we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.

*Note: My mom sent me the article not because she agrees with The Wall Street Journal’s inspirational notes on maintaining our world domination, but because she likes sending me what she refers to on sticky notes as simply “more blog fodder”.

Fodder, indeed!

Want to read more? Visit my blog at: www.maybebabymaybenot.com

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