Beyond babies?

Posted: Aug 29, 2006 12:01 PM

What lies "beyond babies"?

That's the question Newsweek raises in its latest cover story on the looming depopulation crisis in Europe and Asia. But Newsweek (I kid you not) says it means "good things for restaurants and real estate":

"Powerful social and religious taboos (in Greece) labeled childless women as barren spinsters, and cast suspicion on the sexual preferences of single, middle-aged men. No longer. In the space of a generation, that tight social corset has largely vanished, thanks to an array of factors, including better education and job options for women and Greece's entry into the cultural mainstream of the European Union. The result: a marriage rate below the EU average, and a birthrate among the world's lowest, at 1.3 per woman."

So Newsweek tries to stuff perhaps the biggest story of our time -- the sudden collapse of childbearing to below-replacement levels in virtually every free, democratic and affluent nation on this Earth -- into a happy tale of a new generation's lifestyle liberation from that old ugly "social corset" of marriage and family.

In Japan, says Newsweek, 56 percent of 30-year-old women are still childless, up from just 24 percent as recently as 1985. About a quarter of German and Italian women appear headed for childlessness. It takes just under 2.1 children per woman to replace population. As European demographer Francesco Billari has explained, at the European average of 1.5 children per woman, the population will be cut in half every 65 years. At a birthrate of 1.3 children per woman, (think Austria, Italy, Spain, as well as Greece and Japan), the population will be cut in half every 32 years.

And no one knows how low birthrates will go. For as Newsweek points out, the anti-child bias of European societies can only be expected to grow, as children from small families appear to grow up to be adults who anticipate even fewer children themselves.

What lies beyond babies? Death. Death of the individual, and of his or her family. Death of the nation, tribe or culture that adopts a set of beliefs, practices and institutional arrangements that fail to respect and support generativity.

Adoption is a wonderful thing. New reproductive technologies may or may not be. But they won't replace a culture capable of cultivating the attitudes, values, norms and practices that lead men and women to want to give themselves to each other, and to their children, the process which makes the future happen. Every single one of us is alive today because in an unbroken chain stretching back into the dawn of prehistory, in famines, war, and unimaginable poverty and hardship, some man and woman came together to make life happen.

In contemporary America, as Syracuse University Professor Arthur Brooks points out in The Wall Street Journal, that cluster of values increasingly gets denominated "conservative." Analyzing the 2004 General Social Survey, Brooks reports that self-identified liberals have 1.47 children, on average, compared to 2.08 children for self-identified conservatives, a "fertility gap" of 41 percent which (he says) is widening at a half percentage point a year. Even after controlling for age, income, education and religion, he says "the liberal will still be 19 percentage points more likely to be childless than the conservative."

But beyond liberal or conservative, America is a special case. Between 1980 and 2000, while Europe, South Korea and Japan's birth rates plunged, the U.S.'s fertility climbed from 1.85 back up to 2.06. Immigrants, who bring their "less developed" family values to our shores, are a part of the explanation. But American college-educated white women (to name one of the least fertile groups) have birthrates that would be the envy of Europe.

Something is different about America. Consider this both a reassurance and a warning: The future belongs to the people and peoples who dare to give themselves to love.