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Can we be actually normal about birth rates?

Across the whole world, family sizes are falling. In some rich countries they are now low enough that the populations are shrinking, and in at least some countries it’s become clear that this is a trend which does not necessarily level out anywhere. In South …



Can we be actually normal about birth rates?
Can we be actually normal about birth rates?
Across the whole world, family sizes are falling. In some rich countries they are now low enough that the populations are shrinking, and in at least some countries it’s become clear that this is a trend which does not necessarily level out anywhere. In South Korea, for instance, the average number of children per woman is now 0.72, and projected to keep falling. (2.1 live births per woman is the number that will maintain a stable population.) There’s almost no coming back from that. But is that a bad thing? And does it merit a policy solution? A lot of people are understandably shy of treating family sizes as a policy matter. On an individual level, people should have children if they want children, and people who don’t want to have children absolutely shouldn’t be parents. There’s something that feels ugly around proclamations about what the population or the birth rate “should” be — especially given the horrific history of mass sterilizations conducted in the name of “fixing” high birth rates for the sake of the world. (It turned out that the pronouncements that birth rates would lead to global collapse were wildly wrong, and atrocities were carried out at enormous scale against the poorest people in the world for ... no benefit whatsoever.) And there’s also something distasteful about viewing children instrumentally, about creating entire new human beings for the sake of some national political project. I have three kids and am planning to have three more, and I still find something deeply upsetting about seeing people online declare that they’ll “outbreed the left” so that their political views dominate the next generation. Don’t they realize that children are people and often don’t see eye to eye with their parents? The people who talk the most about their duty to have as many children as possible often don’t seem to like their kids, or their lives. It’s a vision of parenthood that’s about as unappealing as it gets. And it’s an exclusionary one — those on the right who champion the cause of parenthood are often the very same people who spent decades trying to keep it illegal for people like me to marry and have children. Having children can be good, actually But with all of that said ... I do, actually, think that declining population is a bad thing and merits a policy solution. Many of the goods of modern society are easier to provide at scale, so a shrinking society becomes a poorer society. Growing productivity would go toward making up for our losses instead of improving quality of life. When individual towns and counties see their populations fall by half, it has deeply harmful effects on those who remain, and I don’t think that countries seeing their population fall by half will play out any differently. And when birth rates dip to extreme lows, countries often take extreme (and fairly silly and usually ineffective) measures to combat it, from state-run dating apps to declaring a national emergency. It seems to me like the healthiest approach to policy here is to make family-centric policy mainstream before there’s a national state of emergency, and to make it normal. And the basic desire for kids — not for fulfilling some national goal, but simply for basic human reasons — is something that’s common, healthy, and absolutely possible to embrace without crossing any ethical lines. While there are extremists on the internet calling for voluntary human extinction to surrender the planet to worthier animals, and extremists on the internet calling for an end to feminism and a ban on birth control, the majority of people in the United States have kids. They love their kids and prioritize their kids. Many of them would have chosen to have more kids if structural factors like housing and education permitted it. The factors that often stand in the way of people having the families they want in the US chiefly aren’t ideological, but depressingly mundane. High housing prices discourage or delay people from having kids, or having as many kids as they’d like. There’s also a cultural shift at work here: I talk to a lot of young adults who never spend time with babies and children thanks to the decline in church attendance and third places where they could intermingle with people in different life stages. It’s hard to figure out if you want children if it’s a decision you have to go into blindly. It’s also hard to want children if you’re being told that they’re a net burden on the world. Some people worry that they shouldn’t have kids because of climate change, and many more think of having children as an indulgence you have to justify instead of a prosocial act that’s part of building a good world. The natalism conversation we should be having What I want is a cultural and policy conversation about how to support families that starts by addressing these problems, beginning with simple premises I think most people agree on: that having children can be awesome and a source of great joy and meaning in life, though it’s far from the only source of joy and meaning in life; that we could do a lot more to build communities in which children are supported, welcomed, and have meaningful independence; that people who don’t want kids shouldn’t have them but that people who do want kids should be supported in making that a priority. I think a healthy culture is one that affirms that the world we live in is good and a good place to raise the next generation, that it’s getting better and our children are among those who will join in on the great project of continuing to make it even better. Right now, there’s a profound disconnect between the kind of person who talks on the internet about having children and the actual experience of parenthood. I think closing that gap, even a little bit, will put us in a better position for a conversation that may be one of the most important ones a society can have.