Acton Institute Powerblog

The heart of demographic decline: Why ‘pro-family’ policies won’t save us

(Photo credit: wsilver. CC BY 2.0.)

In his 2013 book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan V. Last warned of the “coming demographic disaster,” pointing to America’s recent dip below replacement-level fertility. Today, the rate of decline still shows little sign of slowing, driven by a complex “constellation of factors” that range from genuine blessings, to “problems of plenty,” to idols of choice and convenience.

No matter how we parse the patchwork of potential causes, Last concludes that “there is something about modernity itself that tends toward fewer children.” With little help from the state, America has nevertheless “created its very own One-Child Policy,” he writes. “It is soft and unintentional, the result of accidents of history and thousands of little choices.”

In a recent study, “Car Seats as Contraception,” economists Jordan Nickerson and David H. Solomon confirm such phenomena. Estimating that modern car-seat requirements have prevented “57 car crash fatalities of children nationwide in 2017,” the authors note that these requirements have simultaneously deterred many two-child households from growing their families – due to needed vehicle upgrades. According to the study, such laws “led to a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980, with 90% of this decline being since 2000.”

“Thousands of little choices,” indeed.

Amid the mounting evidence, Ross Douthat has also drawn attention to the issue, contextualizing demographic decline as part of a broader story of Western stagnation and sclerosis. In his latest book, The Decadent Society, he argues that falling birthrates accelerate “the closing of the frontier,” leading to significant moral, social, spiritual, and economic consequences. In a chapter titled “Sterility,” Douthat writes that “as much as individualism is the fruit of growth, wealth, prosperity, and achievement, in our own era it also seems to be the seedbed of stagnation.” Alas, “amid all of our society’s material plenty, one resource is conspicuously scarce. That resource is babies.”

In an essay at Plough, Douthat expands on this argument, making a more consolidated case for why “large families will save humanity” and how we ought to realign our cultural attitudes accordingly. This is not some “eccentric question,” he explains – a concern that is confined to religious radicals and end-times alarmists. Whether a society can continue reproducing is “entangled with any social or economic challenge that you care to name”:

As social scientists have lately begun “discovering,” a low-birthrate society will enjoy lower economic growth; it will become less entrepreneurial, more resistant to innovation, with sclerosis in public and private institutions. It will even become more unequal, as great fortunes are divided between ever smaller sets of heirs.

These are just the immediately measurable effects of a dwindling population. They don’t include the other likely effects: the attenuation of social ties in a world with ever fewer siblings, uncles, cousins; the brittleness of a society where intergenerational bonds can be severed by a single feud or death; the unhappiness of young people in a society slouching toward gerontocracy; the growing isolation of the old.

Families can be over-sentimentalized, imprisoning, exhausting. But they supply goods that few alternative arrangements can hope to match. No public program could have replaced the network of relatives that helped my grandfather live independently until his death – even if, yes, his five children, my mother and aunts and uncles, had often feuded with him and each other over the years. No classroom is likely to supply the education in living intimately with other human beings that my children gain from growing up together – even if the virtue of forbearance is not always perfectly manifest in their interactions.

We now take the human family for granted, either passively neglecting or actively denigrating the blessings of children and childrearing. The allure of individualism-as-actualization is strong, and it manifests across society with supreme subtlety.  

As for the causes, Douthat echoes many of Last’s earlier suspicions, pointing to three key drivers of the shift, each of which is a monster of modernity in its own unique way:

First, romantic failure – not just in breakdowns like divorce, but in the alienation of the sexes from one another, the decline of the preliminary steps that lead to children, including not just marriage but sexual intercourse itself. Some combination of wider forces, the postindustrial economy and the sexual revolution and the identity-deforming aspects of the internet, are pushing the sexes ever more apart.

Second, prosperity, in two ways. One, because a rich society offers more everyday pleasures that are hard to cast aside in the way that parenthood requires. (Nothing gave me more sympathy for the childless voluptuaries of a decadent Europe than the first six months of caring for our firstborn.) Two, because prosperity creates new competitive hierarchies, new standards for the “good life,” that status-conscious people respond to by delaying parenthood and having fewer kids.

Finally, secularization – because even if it’s possible to come up with a utilitarian case for having kids, the older admonitions of Genesis appear to have the more powerful effect. The mass exceptions to low birthrates are almost always found among the devout, and the big fertility drop-offs in the United States correlate clearly with dips in religious identification.

Yet each is better understood together, representing a “feedback loop” that is profoundly pernicious and self-reinforcing. “The rich society creates incentives to set aside faith’s admonitions,” Douthat explains, “which orients its culture more toward immediate material pleasures, which makes its inhabitants less likely to have children, which weakens the communal transmission belt for religious traditions, which pushes the society further along the materialist-individualist path.”

To interrupt such a cycle, Douthat suggests a rather modest proposal, encouraging us to politely persuade other parents to have “just one more” child. This wouldn’t mean arguing for “six or eight or ten, but just one more – the kid who requires a new car seat and maybe a new SUV, the kid they feel like they might be able to afford, the kid you can feel pretty sure they won’t regret.” By starting here – challenging “families on the fence” toward “plausible goals” – we might nudge society back to a minimally sustainable replacement rate.

We could also reinforce these nudges, refreshing our cultural arguments about the blessings of children and complementing our rhetoric with any number of “pro-family” policy perks. In doing so, we could provide a proactive push against modern utilitarian impulses, using weapons from a similarly suited armory. “The hope would be that the car-seat economists are right,” Douthat writes, “and that simply by making family more affordable – reducing the cost of childcare or of a parent staying home, reducing the cost of education, reducing the cost of home buying, and so on – you can change both the immediate incentives and the cultural expectations around having kids.”

But while it’s tempting to think about these problems in terms of “tips and tricks” – pairing each with moderating moral ambivalence – Douthat rightly suspects that any real and lasting solution will require far more than shrugging utilitarianism. Wherever tried, our top-down efforts to boost population have largely failed. Many countries have already enacted a series of well-funded, “pro-natalist” and “pro-family” programs. Even where they have succeeded, they have led to results that Douthat admits “are not overwhelming,” with marginal gains that “are fragile and easily swamped.”

Last’s book concludes with much of the same. After surveying the ineffectiveness of a wide range of such approaches – Vladimir Putin’s “Family Contact Day” is my personal favorite – Last concludes that the underlying problems may be tied to something even more insidious than mere consumerist self-interest: the corresponding pull of secularization. Whereas many governments have failed by appealing to the selfishness of adults, those who have succeeded have relied on outward-oriented religious devotion. By offering to personally baptize infants, for example, Patriarch Ilia II managed to increase Georgia’s birth rate by 20%. (Fully 84% of Georgians are part of the Georgian Orthodox Church.)

“There are many perfectly good reasons to have a baby,” Last writes. “(Curiosity, vanity, and naiveté all come to mind.) But at the end of the day, there’s only one good reason to go through the trouble a second time: Because you believe, in some sense, that God wants you to.”

Douthat has a similar hunch. For real and lasting change to occur, he writes, we “would need our society to become dramatically unlike itself, ordered to sacrifice rather than consumption, and to eternity rather than what remains of the American Dream. You would need not change on the margins, but transformation – probably religious transformation – at the heart.”

When facing the monsters of modernity, pressed between those “thousands of little choices,” we will need far more than the designs of man. This will require a renewed appreciation for the family, yes. But it will also require a renewed rejection of ourselves, reimagining “vocation” from being an idol of self-actualization to a means of crucifixion. No matter how much we tinker with the material calculus, we still won’t scratch the surface of the underlying allegiances.

For even if and when we see the light – feeling that burning bullseye of truth around the brittle shell of our “hardened modern hearts” – we’ll need an otherworldly obedience, too.

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.