Birth Dearth Revisited
By Wendell Cantrell
In a recent Culture Watch we looked at a current trend of more pets and less kids, much to the Pope’s chagrin.1 After visiting this interesting trend that is leading to our demographic demise, I thought we needed to probe a bit further into this childless world that our younger generations are choosing. As I began to research this, the results are pretty astounding. TIME magazine recently ran a cover story in which writer Lauren Sandler stated, “The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history. . . . From 2007 to 2011 . . . the fertility rate declined 9%. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s.” 2
In exploring this issue, I was reminded of the strong position of our Catholic brethren on procreation. The Pope had the following to say concerning the current childless trend in the developed world:
“Then, in the end this marriage (maternity free) comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”
“Raising children is the natural outcome of marriage.”
“Married life must be persevering, because otherwise love cannot go forward.”
“There must be perseverance in love, in good times and in difficult times, when there are problems: problems with the children, economic problems.”
“There are things that Jesus doesn’t like — couples who don’t want children, who want to be without fruitfulness,”
Before you say, “Wait a minute”, please know that I am not in his camp on this issue. Certainly, we all know couples who, either because of choice or reproductive health issues, have remained childless. They are regularly serving the Lord, and through intentional disciple-making, they are creating a spiritual legacy. We also all know of single Christians who have been able to lead spiritually fertile lives as well. Perhaps even better able to do so because they are not distracted by marital and parental issues.
Let’s take a moment to review the current statistics on this trend. What demographers (studiers of human populations) watch closely is a figure called the total fertility rate (TFR). This is the average number of children born to a woman during her childbearing years. A population needs a TFR of 2.1 for stability. Native Europeans average well under 1.5. The population of most of Europe will be sustained over the next 50 years, primarily by the high fertility rate of Muslim immigrants. America, by contrast, has a 1.9 TFR which is close to the maintenance level of 2.1. That figure is bolstered, however, by the immigrant Hispanic population. 3
Phillip Longman has written an intriguing book4 giving clear evidence for the birth dearth (paucity of babies). He makes the case, with solid research, that there is no “population bomb” in our future as had been previously forecasted. Actually the statistics point to a future with too few, not too many, human beings. Global fertility rates are half of what they were 25 years ago. The world population today is 7.2 billion. Longman quotes UN figures that show that the total population could begin a decline within the lifetime of today’s children. The total world population will likely reach 9 billion around 2070 and then begin to shrink.
Another author, Jonathan Last, examines the broader context of this trend in his new book. 5 He points out some of the shockingly low TFRs such as Singapore’s 1.1 and Japan’s 1.3. Addressing this question becomes urgent when future wealth of nations is discussed. We have seen that welfare states throughout the Western world are based on the idea that the young will fund the benefits for the old, but the birth dearth means that as debts and deficits keep rising, something has to give. Either benefits will be trimmed, or the young will have to pay an even higher portion of their income to fund their older relatives. Our country’s Social Security system faces that very issue.
Are we seeing this trend in the body of Christ today? The clear answer is yes and some of the reasons, in addition to the furry family issue1 include:
- We live in a culture where wellbeing is the priority. We want a fun-filled life where we can go explore the world, get a villa in the countryside, and be literally carefree. This desire for constant fun undermines parenthood as a gift and obligation.
- The anti-natalist worldview sees children as economic liabilities, rather than as gifts to be received with joy. The materialists will remind us that the average middle class child will cost their parents $200,000, not including college. Some economists argue that these “foregone wages” could be as high as one million dollars per child.
- Ideological feminism lessens the birth rate. Women with this viewpoint often focus on their career until the “biological clock” has wound down. Workplace success, not motherhood, is often seen as the key to fulfillment.
Last’s provocative book we mentioned earlier, raises questions about what can be done about the birth dearth. Efforts to raise birthrates, such as baby bonuses in countries like Singapore, seem not to be moving the needle. He suggests that the most promising developments in this respect are connecting fecundity with the revitalization of faithful religious practice. Hey, that is a great idea! Maybe we need to recommit to prolife work, fostering, and adoptions. And lastly (no pun intended), develop a vision for the most natural discipleship process available – parenting to the glory of God!
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- Culture Watch: November 2014, Seven Signs We May Be Worshiping Our Pets
- Time Magazine, Aug. 12, 2013, The Childfree Life by Lauren Sandler
- Culture Watch, July 2010, Family Challenge in Contemporary Culture
- The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity by Phillip Longman
- What to Expect when No One’s Expecting by Jonathan Last