Civil Liberties

Why are People Having Fewer Kids?

Perhaps it's because they don't like them very much.


The "demographic winter" is coming. So warns a new documentary of the same name. What is the demographic winter? The phrase, according to the film's promotional materials, "denotes the worldwide decline in birthrates, also referred to as the 'birth dearth,' and what that portends." The first half of Demographic Winter was previewed at the conservative Heritage Foundation a couple of weeks ago. According the film, the demographic winter augurs little good, e.g., economic collapse and social deterioration. If current trends continue world population should begin a steep decline sometime around the middle of the 21st century. Why?

Because total fertility rates (TFRs) are plummeting around the world. Population stability is achieved when each woman bears an average of 2.1 kids over the course of her lifetime—one for her, one for her male partner, and a little overage to make up to childhood deaths. Today, there are sixty countries in which TFRs are below 2.1. For example, the European Union's TFR is 1.5 and no EU member state has a TFR at replacement or above. Even high population developing countries have seen steep declines in fertility. Since 1970, China's TFR fell from 5.8 to 1.6; India's from 5.8 to 2.9; Indonesia from 5.6 to 2.4; Japan's from 2.0 to 1.3; Mexico's from 6.8 to 2.4; Brazil's from 5.4 to 2.3; and South Africa's from 5.9 to 2.7. The U.S. TFR dropped from 2.55 in 1970 to around 2.1 today, largely because of the influx of higher fertility immigrants. However, the fertility of second generation Americans drops to the level of longer established Americans.

I doubt that the "demographic winter" portends economic collapse or social deterioration, but let us set that aside for this column, and instead ask why people are choosing to have fewer children? After all, voluntary childlessness seems to violate the Darwinian premise that our genes dispose us, like all other creatures, to try to reproduce.

However, demographic data are undercutting the notion that there is some kind of sociobiological nurturing imperative, economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt noted during the question period following the documentary. As evidence, he pointed to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, where 30 percent of women are childless and that Hong Kong's TFR has been below 1 birth per woman for at least a decade.

Demographic Winter
asserts that "every aspect of modernity works against family life and in favor of singleness and small families or voluntary childlessness." And surely they are right. Modern societies offer people many other satisfactions and choices outside of the family. In particular women find that their time becomes more highly valued in occupations outside the home. There are no iron laws of demography, but one that comes pretty close is that the more educated women are, the fewer children they tend to have. Eberstadt also noted the best predictor of fertility levels is the desired family size as reported by women. And finally, the most profound event of the 20th century may have been the sexual revolution's drive toward gender equality, enabled by modern contraception. Unlike other creatures, people can have the fun of sex without the side effect of parenthood.

So, modernity essentially transforms children from capital goods that produce family income into consumption items to be enjoyed for their own sakes, more akin to sculptures, paintings, or theatre. But that's just the problem—according to happiness researchers, people don't really enjoy rearing children.

"Economists have modeled the impact of many variables on people's overall happiness and have consistently found that children have only a small impact. A small negative impact," reports Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert. In addition, the more children a person has the less happy they are. According to Gilbert, researchers have found that people derive more satisfaction from eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television than taking care of their kids. "Indeed, looking after the kids appears to be only slightly more pleasant than doing housework," asserts Gilbert in his bestselling, Stumbling on Happiness (2006).

Of course, that's not what most parents say when asked. For instance, in a 2007 Pew Research Center survey people insisted that their relationships with their little darlings are of the greatest importance to their personal happiness and fulfillment. However, the same survey also found "by a margin of nearly three-to-one, Americans say that the main purpose of marriage is the 'mutual happiness and fulfillment' of adults rather than the 'bearing and raising of children.'"

Gilbert suggests that people claim their kids are their chief source of happiness largely because it's what they are expected to say. In addition, Gilbert observes that the more people pay for an item, the more highly they tend to value it and children are expensive, even if you don't throw in piano lessons, soccer camps, orthodonture, and college tuitions. Gilbert further notes that the more children people have, the less happy they tend to be. Since that is the case, it is not surprising that people are choosing to have fewer children. And if people with fewer children are happier, then people with no children must be happiest, right? Not exactly, but the data do suggest that voluntarily childless women and men are not less happy than parents. And they sure do have more money to squander as they try to pursue what happiness they can and strive to somehow fill up their allegedly empty lives.

Disclosure: My wife and I try not to flaunt our voluntarily childless lifestyle too much.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.