Come back, little babies

Posted: Dec 28, 2006 12:01 AM
Come back, little babies

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.

"From Christmas onwards, I will be standing on my head," one pregnant women who is due at any time tells der Spiegel magazine, counting on the old wives' tale that standing upside down delays birth. Europeans will be watching whether such subsidies can reverse the birth dearth, but skeptics abound. They argue that giving away government money aims incentives in the wrong direction, forcing women back into a 1950s family model of breadwinner Dad and stay-at-home Mom. But many women say they like it that way while their children are young.

Women in Germany, like women in America, wage "mommy wars." A particularly troubling German statistic is that at least 40 percent of women with college degrees are childless. Rural communities post higher fertility rates, which leads one demographic expert to suggest that the best formula to encourage fertility is to halt your education, marry early and live on a farm.

Ursula von der Leyen, the German family minister, is an exception to the trend. Frau von der Leyen is a medical doctor, a trained economist and an attractive blonde with seven children. But in Germany, where there's great pressure to be a nonworking "good mother," her example doesn't get much emulation. Career women find Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is childless, a more appealing model.

When you hear the phrase "baby gap" in Germany, it's not about a clothing label for youngsters but a term for men and women who in their old age can't count on support by an inflated welfare state. There won't be enough young people to pay all those taxes. Most of Europe is becoming an aging society of elders.

A book called "The Vanishing Adolescent" was popular 40 years ago. It wrongly predicted that teenagers would be deprived of their youth if they were rushed into adulthood. It didn't happen. Maybe the doomsday predictions are premature, and Cupid will rescue us yet. We'll need more babies crawling behind the old man with the scythe in new years to come. For auld lang syne.

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