The world is panicking over birthrates. Again.
Dr. Love is struggling. Oh, the business side of things is going well. There's the couples cruise, the magazine, the singles nights, the self-authored sex ideology he calls "bio-communication." And the international media still can't get enough of him: A few years back, seemingly every wire service in the world had a story on the young gynecologist's forthcoming "super baby making show," which would pit 10 couples against one another to see who could conceive first in a public assault on Singapore's shockingly low fertility rate. As a government-backed baby booster for the island city-state, Wei Siang Yu just wants couples to work less and fornicate more. But try as he might, the good doctor can't seem to coax Singapore's child-free twentysomethings into bed.
Ask young women about Dr. Love, and you'll get derisive giggles. Ask for his allegedly widely available pro-sex DVD at the local entertainment megastore, and the seller won't have a clue. Ask one of the assistants at his home office whether young lovers actually rent out his bally-hooed procreation pad, which is dominated by a complicated looking "sex swing" and other accoutrements of venturesome lovemaking, and he'll change the subject.
Dr. Love's allies in the war on childlessness have fared no better. The Singaporean government's official matchmaking agency, the SDU—the initials stand for Social Development Unit, but it's known to snarky islanders as "Single, Desperate, and Ugly"—is situated just off the city-state's main shopping thoroughfare, and it doesn't seem nearly as popular as the nearby Emporio Armani.
These days the official slogan of Singapore's baby-making campaign is "Three or More." But Singaporeans of childbearing age grew up listening to an altogether different appeal: "Stop at Two." As in much of East Asia, the tiny island's population exploded after World War II—by more than 90 percent between 1957 and 1970 alone. In the Age of Aquarius, billboards and posters warned young couples "the more you have, the less they get" and "girl or boy, two is enough." Parents who agreed to be sterilized after having two children got priority placement for their kids in elementary school.
Since then, demographic conditions have changed radically, but the state has maintained its intense interest in procreation. Singapore's "total fertility rate," a crude prediction of how many children a woman will bear in her lifetime if current patterns persist, is among the lowest in the world at 1.07, but the baby bust is not a future the island faces alone. From Hong Kong (0.98) to Italy (1.29) to Russia (1.39) to Canada (1.61), most of the world's population will soon live in nations where the fertility rate is below the "replacement" level of 2.1. Governments far less authoritarian than Singapore's are intruding into childbearing choices. After 200 years of exponential population growth, and just four decades after overpopulation doomsaying began filling the bestseller lists, the First World is suddenly gripped with underpopulation hysteria.
And everyone has an explanation for it.
"Europe is facing a demographic disaster," said quondam Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his February concession speech. "That is the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life, and eroded morality."
The late Pope John Paul II agreed with America's most famous Mormon, speaking of a "crisis of births." On the liberal side you can find demographic thinkers such as Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, and the Australian demographer Peter McDonald, who argue that we're headed for a dark future unless governments begin bestowing mothers with some serious baby shower gifts.
Books like P.D. James' 1992 novel The Children of Men (made into a bleak film in 2007) join Mark Steyn's America Alone in depicting a harsh and violent babyless landscape. Even in the United States, where population growth remains uniquely irrepressible among wealthy nations, ideologically driven concerns about demography have crept into the national conversation. They appear in the 2004 science fiction comedy Idiocracy, in which intelligent women and men, by failing to produce children, have doomed the world to collective mental incapacity by the 26th century (when the U.S. president is a porn star and the most popular TV show is Ow! My Balls!). They appear in the hysterical 2008 documentary Demographic Winter, in which we can watch a lone, naked boy shivering in an empty warehouse.
The developed world is experiencing a wave of pro-natalist sentiment that threatens to bully the childless, tax the single, and reorient states toward the production rather than the protection of citizens. In most developed nations with below-replacement fertility, governments are attempting to align incentives so that women will use their bodies for the purpose of childbirth. In the U.S., right-wing religious groups are calling for a rollback of contraceptive freedom and a return to patriarchal arrangements, all in the name of something called "demographic balance."
It may sound like a movement of sorts, but it is far from cohesive. Although pro-natalists share an obsession with procreation, they are driven to this anxiety by a host of different fears. As a group, they worry that their countries are admitting too many immigrants, and too few; that we have liberated women too much, and not enough; that welfare states are too strong, and too weak. Pick any divisive social issue—a lack of religiosity, say, or an excess of the same—and you can find someone to draw the connection to demographic decline.
Modern fertility panic stems from a desire to reshape polyglot cultures, to regain control over women's reproductive choices, and to locate a single, easy-to-understand culprit for disparate social problems. As they have for hundreds of years, societies are projecting their deepest anxieties onto empty wombs.
If you're a woman of childbearing age in a developed country, there's a good chance your government will pay you to reproduce at the currently desirable rate. Russian women who opt for a second child receive a lump sum of 250,000 rubles ($9,200)—not bad compared to Poland's going rate of a measly 1,000 zloty ($460) per kid. France and Sweden combine pro-natalist incentives with more traditional social welfare schemes. Fecund couples in Sweden, for instance, receive a combined 13 months of parental leave, 11 of which can be taken by one parent, and during which the government provides 80 percent of a parent's former income. Parents collect 900 euros ($1,410) per year; bosses then must allow their employees to work part time for prorated pay once they become parents.
In May 2004 the Australian government tried to boost its birthrate of 1.76 by announcing that the parents of children born after July 1, 2004, would receive 3,000 Aussie dollars ($2,800). As Australian economists later noticed, pregnant women due in June did not leave it up to nature whether the maternal stipend would come to them; more babies were born on July 1, 2004, than on any day in the previous 30 years.
Singapore's SDU offers a free government dating adviser who interviews young singles about themselves and their ideal partners. The adviser chooses a match, and the eligible bachelors watch videos of one another before agreeing to the date. Before the big night, both are offered makeovers, and the SDU gives free lectures on personal grooming. "Personal hygiene doesn't end with a shower and clean clothes," reads a helpful dating guide. "For close encounters between the sexes, oral hygiene cannot be ignored.…Extreme halitosis may require medical attention." The largesse extends well past date night. First and second children bring in baby bonuses of 3,000 Singapore dollars ($2,200) each, while third and fourth children garner 6,000 Singapore dollars ($4,400) each. The government also matches parental investment in special children's savings accounts, which can be used for day care or other child-related expenses, dollar for dollar.
In Singapore and elsewhere, the shift from baby boom to baby bust effected a remarkable role reversal among those obsessed with procreation. Pro-family conservatives went from reliably urging calm in the face of books like William Paddock's Famine 1975!, which proposed a system of triage for dealing with inevitable mass starvation; to fanning the flames of birth-rate fear. Allan Carlson, the head of the World Congress of Families and long one of the most virulent opponents of United Nations population control policies, began telling audiences that "the demographic problem facing the twenty-first century is depopulation, not overpopulation."
Of all the possible American narratives to explain fertility decline, none seems to hold more power than a story of leftist values leading inexorably to extinction. In March the Illinois-based Family First Foundation released a documentary called Demographic Winter: The Decline of the Human Family. As a variety of experts explain our descent into extinction, the producers lay out their hypotheses in bullet points: Divorce, Working Women, Prosperity, The Sexual Revolution, and what's termed "Ideologies." Frolicking children fade and disappear into nothingness—a rapture of sorts visited upon us repeatedly throughout the film. Cohabitation, feminism, and pop culture do not fare particularly well. Our economies will fall apart—"Who will man the factories?" asks a tag line, a thought that should keep you up at night only if you suspect producers will die off while consumers live on. The Fall of Rome is invoked, the rise of "the East" mentioned more than once. Kay Hymowitz, a conservative social critic, describes the advent of the "man-child," more interested in Maxim than procreation, as the film cuts to a man playing his Wii intently, his presumably childless wife looking on gloomily from the side.
Across the Atlantic, the British press is full of self-loathing op-ed pieces about a people too self-absorbed to reproduce. Representative articles include a Sunday Times article headlined "Sorry, baby, but our lifestyles come first" and a Daily Mail piece more directly entitled "Why ARE We Too Selfish to Have Children?"
Are lad mags and the Nintendo corporation responsible for a global decline in birthrates? Broadly, nations that are more developed (and therefore more likely to produce video games and men's magazines) produce fewer children than less developed nations. But while Demographic Winter uses Europe as the ultimate cautionary tale, Europe's current demographics largely contradict the idea that more socially conservative societies tend to produce more children.
Religion? It is the most religious European countries, such as Italy, that have the continent's lowest fertility rates; secular Norway is just under replacement level. Working women? European countries with the highest work force participation rates, such as Sweden and Norway, tend to have higher fertility than those with a comparatively small percentage of women working, such as Greece.
Cohabitation? France, where shacking up is a social norm, has a higher fertility rate than any of its immediate neighbors. Family instability? In a forthcoming book, Demographic Challenges for the 21st Century, the demographer Tomas Sobotka argues that divorce rates in Europe might be positively correlated with birthrates. "Many countries which have advanced furthest in the decline of traditional family and the spread of less conventional and less stable living arrangements," he writes, "record relatively high fertility when judged by contemporary European standards." Low levels of economic development coupled with social conservatism may well produce high fertility levels; but in modern Europe, it seems that the combination of a modern economy and social conservatism may produce some of the lowest fertility levels on Earth.
In the first half of the 20th century, demographers generally held that urbanization, industrialization, and education were the chief determinants of fertility decline. Later, neoclassical economists hypothesized that the rate of decline would correlate with the rates of increase in the opportunity cost of women staying out of the work force and in the relative cost of raising children.
The latter theory is useful "as a way to structure thinking," according to the American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, but, as with nearly every theory of fertility, there is much that it fails to explain. The relative cost of having children is indeed very high in Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States, but these countries have markedly different birth rates. Nor does it explain why the birthrate is lower north of the Canadian border than south of it.
Strangest of all, total fertility rates are dropping most rapidly in predominantly rural countries with low female literacy rates and few work force opportunities. Dramatic drops in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, absent much economic development, have come as a surprise to economists and demographers alike. In 1970, according to the United Nation's Children's Fund, Bangladesh's total fertility rate was 6.4. In 2006 it was 2.9. Zimbabwe's rate dropped from 7.4 to 3.3 during the same period.
The theory that economic development leads to fertility decline breaks down at the very first demographic data point on record. The first country to enter a sustained fertility decline was not England, the cradle of the industrial revolution. "It was France!" exclaims Eberstadt. "France was rural and poor and was very largely illiterate and, not to put to fine a point on it, it was Catholic. That kind of confutes a lot of things we think are supposed to connect between modernization and fertility change."
The Baby-Welfare State
The conservative narrative of fertility decline is part of the right's culture war weaponry, engineered to find praise in the pages of Human Events and criticism in the pages of The Nation. But it's more nostalgia than political program, a generalized condemnation of progress rather than a plan for the future. After a screening of Demographic Winter at the Heritage Foundation, a socially conservative D.C. think tank, a panel of enthusiastic commentators was asked how to achieve the massive cultural rollback required to stop collective extinction. Judging by the film's logic, this would involve reversing the sexual revolution, bringing women back into the home, curtailing an ethic of individualism, and ending the welfare state. Most of the panelists had little to say. One piped in with "virtues education."
Practically speaking, on the policy level, demographic panic is only useful for one purpose: the promotion of social welfare programs many social conservatives would oppose. From France to Poland to Singapore, governments are responding to low fertility with policies social democrats have always favored. Almost any aspect of the welfare state can be construed as encouraging procreation; more to the point, low fertility can be blamed on the lack of any particular social welfare program. A dearth of pregnancies is evidence that protections for workers are too few, social welfare allowances too small, public school days too short, mandated maternity leave too limited. Women want to fulfill their natural roles as mothers, goes the assumption, but dog-eat-dog capitalism stands in the way.
"Evidence reveals that, in most countries, most young people aspire to an enduring intimate relationship and to having children," wrote Peter McDonald in an influential 2005 paper on fertility policy. "However, faced with the realities of the new social and economic world, many do not achieve these aspirations." McDonald blames deregulation and "neoliberalism" for an environment hostile to procreation. "States," he concludes tidily, "must be principal players in restoring the social balance."
The contention that women aren't having as many children as they'd like to is rooted in "desired fertility," or the number of children women say they want as they enter their childbearing years. In Europe, as women increasingly choose to go childless, they continue to tell surveyors that they want two children. That disparity is sometimes deemed "unmet demand"; governments, goes the theory, must assist women in the quest to produce the children they say they want.
When the concept is framed this way, most of us have "unmet demand" for any number of goods—flat-screen televisions, yachts, MacBooks—that taxpayers fail to help us acquire. No one doubts that it is possible to structure incentives such that more women will use their bodies in the way politicians prefer, which is why many liberal arguments for pro-fertility policies are suspiciously self-affirming. Offered millions of dollars per birth, women would indeed go into labor more often. Pregnant women can then be cast as responding rationally to incentives or as "achieving their aspirations" to become a mother. The more relevant question, and the one rarely broached, is whether women who choose not to have children should be forced to subsidize those who do.
There is an alternative explanation for the behavior of young women who declare a desire for two children yet go on to have one or none: Women may be telling pollsters what they think the pollsters want to hear, or simply reciting lines memorized from cultural scripts. "The answers may reflect mere stereotypes," wrote the demographers Gustavo De Santis and Massimo Livi Bacci in a 2001 study, "and not constitute any reliable guide of people's true preferences or intentions for the future." The two-child norm, they add, "generally prevails in our times." Men and women may continue to idealize the nuclear family—one boy, one girl—well beyond its heyday.
At the moment, small cash handouts do not appear to be doing much to increase birthrates across Europe and Asia. More-sophisticated attempts to reduce the burdens of working mothers, such as subsidized day care or regulations regarding the status of part-time workers, may raise birthrates very slightly, but there is no consensus on whether they are effective. Birthrates rise and fall, and it's difficult to establish causality even when fertility rates shoot up after a policy goes into effect.
Michael Teitelbaum, a historian of demography, says he knows of only two places where pro-natalist policies have achieved real long-term results. One was communist East Germany, where wages were kept so low that the government could afford to pay baby bonuses that amounted to one-third of what a woman would have made working that year. The other was communist Romania, where dictator Nicolae Ceausescu outlawed contraception and abortion in October 1966 without warning. The resulting spike in birth rates was the largest in recorded history. That worked for about a decade, says Teitelbaum, "until people reconstructed their illegal ways of controlling their fertility."
Depopulation panic isn't new. It's merely making a comeback after a long, anomalous period of overpopulation panic. Waves of birthrate anxiety swept through France at the beginning of the 19th century and the United States between the world wars. Today's developed-world worries are in one sense very understandable: No one alive today can remember a time when the global population was not on the rise. Growth has become the norm, and that norm may change in the foreseeable future. "When [growth] goes negative even a tiny amount," says Teitelbaum, "some people immediately say, well, this is a quantum, dramatic shift in what it means to be a human society."
Quantum or otherwise, a demographic shift does require adjustment, notably of pension programs that are built on faulty assumptions of endless expansion. Fertility declines alter the basic age structure of a society, much as the baby boom did a half-century ago. Neither gradual declines nor gradual increases in population need be destructive, but the former will require concrete changes in redistribution schemes and a reshuffling of resources.
For those who, with good reason, worry about the solvency of transfer programs in an age of population decline, replacement immigration looks like a partial solution, and therefore xenophobia is part of the problem. But for many if not most of the people preoccupied by fertility rates, immigration is no solution at all. The question isn't about whether the United States, Singapore, or France will be without people in 2100; it's about what kind of people will populate those countries: what they will look like, what they will teach in their schools, what God they will bow before. Mark Steyn's America Alone warns that within a few generations Europe will be a Muslim continent. When Pat Buchanan discusses depopulation in The Death of the West, he does not proceed to suggest we replace children of European descent with Mexican laborers. Pro-natalist policies in Quebec, Singapore, and until recently Israel implicitly target a preferred ethnic group, attempting to fill the future with the demographics desired by the current political class.
Michael Teitelbaum and Jay Winter have another explanation for the current fertility panic. "Such worries seem to crop up at predictable moments," they wrote in a response to Phillip Longman in the September 2004 Foreign Affairs, arguing that "when a dominant political or economic power begins to feel unsure of its mastery and uncertain about the future, many thinkers turn to demography for an explanation of its plight."
In times of collective insecurity, empty wombs are cast as either a cause or a symptom of a state supposedly in decline. In their 1985 book The Fear of Population Decline, Teitelbaum and Winter say pro-natalism became a French obsession after Germany invaded France in the late 19th century. Emile Zola's 1899 novel Fecondite is a 19th-century version of Demographic Winter, no less subtle in its message or gentle in its warning. Zola tells the story of a factory worker named Mathieu Froment and his wife, Marianne, who reproduce at a rate that alarms their individualistic, selfish, and more prosperous neighbors. A bourgeois accountant at the factory equates fertility with poverty. Naturally, his wife dies during a botched abortion. Mathieu's employer mocks the highly fertile, avoids reproduction, and espouses neo-Malthusianism; his single son becomes a murderer and his wife goes mad and dies. The Angelins, a pair of individualists, decide to put off parenthood; Mme. Angelin dies childless, penniless, and thoroughly disgraced. Through it all, the noble Froments continue to multiply. "At one point," Teitelbaum and Winter note, "Marianne delivers at the rate of one child every two pages."
Fear of invasion is a theme running straight through the historical narrative of fertility alarmism. It's no coincidence that the first great wave of American immigration coincided with a period of heightened maternalist rhetoric. President Theodore Roosevelt was particularly concerned about the "race suicide" of white Protestants. "The severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility," he said in 1910, shortly after his second term had ended. "The first essential in any civilization is that the man and woman shall be father and mother of healthy children, so that the race shall increase and not decrease."
Periods of anxiety over "race suicide" are rarely good times for women. Protestants who were worried about the rising tide of foreign Catholics passed anti-abortion laws in the 1880s that endured until 1973, when Roe v. Wade limited their scope. Embracing historical continuity with the nativists who came before him, Mark Steyn takes time in America Alone to blame women for aborting the generation that might have stood between us and the coming Islamification of the West. It's not surprising at all that the single greatest social anxiety of our time has been reduced to crude demographic projections that pin the blame on empty wombs.
In 1960 Princeton demographers sought to buttress current population theory in one of the most ambitious demographic projects ever. The European Fertility Project, led by Ansley Coale, collected massive amounts of data from city registers and church basements and mapped fertility rates in 600 European provinces.
The problem: No extant theory would hold the disparate results together. "They ran into a lot of brick walls," says Eberstadt. "This pattern of diffusion of fertility decline didn't make a lot of sense to labor force specialists or to industrialization specialists. Then some specialist said, 'Oh! I see what you have there; you have a map of the language families of modern Europe.'" People who spoke the same language, the researchers found, tended to enter fertility decline at around the same time. Women were having fewer children because their friends were having fewer children. It's a completely fascinating and utterly question-begging conclusion. What domino sets off the cascade of childlessness?
"The problem," the historian Charles Tilly writes in the introduction to Historical Studies of Changing Fertility, "is that we have too many explanations which are individually plausible in general terms, which contradict each other to some degree, and which fail to fit some significant part of the facts."
The result is a plethora of explanatory narratives, some with more predictive power than others but none totally satisfying. What's more, the "ideal fertility rate" itself is a matter of ideological preference. "It's not obvious to me what the 'right' level for birthrates is for any country," says Eberstadt. "It is obvious to me what the right direction for mortality is. The right direction is down. But fertility is a much more complicated story." There isn't even a consensus about the relationship between population growth and economic growth. Theoretically, individual incomes can continue to rise as the population falls.
The answer is likely to be a complex combination of theories we already have—sociological, anthropological, and economic. In the midst of so many plausible causes, it's tempting to search for a narrative that conforms to previously held convictions or confirms long-held anxieties. The search for a valueless science of demography continues to be conducted in vain, and the very language we use to discuss falling birthrates is loaded with unscientific judgment. Nations are not just depopulating; they are "dying," "decaying," even "autogenocidal." Fertility rates don't just decline; they "collapse." Our future is "barren," a "demographic winter" marked by "sterility" and "senescence."
Bogus fears about fertility decline don't preclude justified ones, and current rates of fertility pose real, though not obviously catastrophic, challenges. In a shrinking society that refuses to welcome more immigrants or reform population-dependent social programs, something will have to give. Cash handouts for kids are a far cry from the more coercive pro-natalist policies of Ceausescu and Mussolini, and pro-fertility policies will cease to provoke charges of totalitarianism when they are wrapped into larger social welfare policies. Many changes sold as supportive of working women, such as extending the public school day to conform with work hours, are often defended on their own merits as well.
But as pro-baby policies are inevitably sold as pro-mother, and by extension pro-woman, it's worth recalling the sentiment behind the Australian birth premiums and Singaporean matchmaking schemes. At the heart of any fertility incentive lies an attempt to encourage a particular group of women to orient their bodies in a traditional way. Every pro-fertility policy is an effort to slow cultural transformation, to stabilize a society's ethnic composition, to ossify a current conception of a national culture by freezing the genetic makeup of a nation. From Poland to Singapore, swollen wombs are a bulwark against change.
There is a reason we speak of "Mother Russia" and "Mother India." Feminist sociologists such as Nira Yuval-Davis refer to women as the "boundary markers" of a state or society. While men may leave, fight, and be compromised, women represent purity and continuity. Yuval-Davis points out in her book Gender and Nation that the Hitler Youth Movement had different mottos for girls and boys. The boys' motto was: "Live faithfully; fight bravely; die laughing." For girls: "Be faithful; be pure; be German." Girls simply had to be. They were the collective.
In times of great social anxiety, we see new calls for women to return to home and hearth—calls alternately cast as a return to tradition and as a progressive leap forward, but efforts, nonetheless, to enlist women in a national project while defining the boundaries of national inclusion. Depopulation is not a given, but ideologically fraught and scientifically questionable debates about gender, race, and culture will be with us no matter which way the population swings. "To know what demography is, we need to know what a population is," the French social scientist Herve Le Bras wrote in The Invention of Populations. "That is where the trouble begins."
Kerry Howley is a senior editor at reason.