Time is running out for the old man with a scythe. He's about to give way to the pudgy baby in a clean diaper. The old man has done his work, and as usual we can't wait to see him go. The baby suggests change, which we can always hope means better, with new energy, new hope, new vitality.
But if we want an accurate depiction of what lies ahead, maybe we ought to look for lots of old men and fewer babies. "The single most important fact about the early 21st century," writes Mark Steyn in "America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It," a doomsday book to spook any New Year's celebration, "is the rapid aging of almost every developed nation other than the United States. Canada, Europe and Japan are getting old fast, older than any functioning society has ever been and faster than any has ever aged."
The birth dearth is real, and there are many reasons for it. In the United States we're replacing ourselves at an average rate of 2.1 births per mother, and large families are increasingly rare. Many women who waited to have their children well into their 30s are disappointed to learn that older women often get pregnant only with difficulty. Working women complain that it's hard to juggle a career and child care and good day care is difficult to find. In the large families of yesteryear, the older kids helped.
My extended family tells the modern American story. My mother had six siblings, my father seven. My husband and I have three children; two of my adult children have two. The family has shrunk.
Personal tax exemptions are generous, but not enough to inspire large families. In 2006, a married couple with three young children could qualify for a total exemption of $16,500, based on $3,300 for each parent and child. That can't cover the cost of raising children and saving for college, but once upon a time we usually didn't decide how many children to have by merely calculating the costs. In an adult-centered society, we do.
Other countries suffer a severe baby drought. In Germany, for example, the birth rate is 1.37 per woman, and the government thinks extra money will be the magic incentive to change that. After the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, a woman who gives birth will get a bonus. "Elterngeld," or "parents money," will bestow a government grant of 67 percent of her last net income, tax free, up to 1,800 euros a month ($2,380), if she stays home with a new babe. Parents can receive these grants for 12 to 14 months.