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Make Babies, Save the World

Fighting Ivan Drago: In the late 20th century, two countries posed a threat to America's economic and political freedom: the Soviet Union and Japan. 

The Soviet Union was the target of movies like Red Dawn (the first one) and Rocky IV (Ivan Drago!) and the Japan likewise was the target of movies like Gung Ho, Die Hard (Nakatomi Plaza as a symbol of Japanese capital investment in the US) and Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun.

But these two countries quickly faded as threats for the same reason: falling fertility.

Author and demographer Jonathan Last doesn't quite blame everything on the lack of baby-making but in his "What to Expect When No One's Expecting" about America's coming demographic disaster, fertility is precisely the issue. It is the lens through which Russia and Japan's economic collapse can be better understood. Last makes a depressing case for what is happening not just in America but all over the modernized world. In every industrialized country, fertility rates are plummeting. And the consequences will be severe.

Let's start with Russia, the largest member of the former Soviet Union, first. In 1995, Russia had 150 million people, now they have 138 million. The populations is falling by 200,000 a year. Patterns of family formation have changed, many couples choose long-term cohabitation rather than marriage. Russia also has the distinction of having highest divorce rate in the world. Due to widespread alcoholism and lack of economic opportunity, the most startlingly statistic is that there are more 30% more abortions in Russia than there are live births.  Last writes "[this statistic] suggests a society that no longer has the will to live." 

Next: Japan. Between 2008 and 2011, the country of the rising sun lost a million people. Between now and 2025, the country's population will drop by another 6 million. It's not just about losing people, low fertility changes the age structure. That means a lot more old people than young people. A declining population along with a shrinking worker base is correlated with economic stagnation. The economy story of Japan is complicated but their low-fertility problem has not helped bring their economy back. The Japan household savings rate was 15% in 1990 but today is 2% as the increasingly elderly population is now withdrawing from their retirement funds. 

But it can't be that bad in the US. Our economy is prospering, we have lots of immigration. Not so fast writes Last. He argues that we have a one child policy just like China. The replacement fertility rate is 2.1. This is the number of children the average woman should have in order for a country's population to say constant. China has a fertility rate of 1.54 (it's possible for a fee and in certain regions to have more than one child). The fertility rate for white, college-educated women (whom Last chooses as a bellwether for the middle class) is 1.6. 

Kids cost more. The cost of raising children has gone up. Everything from seat belt laws to the increasing cost of a college education make having a child cost. In 1960, the USDA decided the cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 was $25,229 (about $193,000 in 2011 dollars).  In 2007, it went up 15% to about $222K. That's not including college. For a baby born in 2011, just tack on another $260K. There's a price for freedom.

And sex out of marriage means less kids. But Last proposes the biggest impact came in 1960 because of a little invention - the Pill. The Pill de-coupled childbirth from sex. And with that, sex from marriage. Cue stats please. About half of women who were married between 1960 and 1964 had sex for the first time on their wedding night. 15 years, that number dropped to 21.4%. Average age of first marriage for a woman in 1960 was 20.3 years old. In 2010, it was 26.1 years old. Cohabitation has gone up as well, starting in the 1970s among the lesser-educated, it's part of social fabric and as of 2008, 41% of all births were to unmarried women.  

More American, less kids. Let's take California, surely things are better here because immigrants are attracted to the land of the free. Well, on the face of things that's true. 1 in 4 Californians are born outside of this country. Heck, 39% of the population of San Jose was born outside of this country. In 2011, the fertility rate for US immigrants was 2.6, native-born American women, 2.0. Immigrants keep our population going. Some population estimates say that this year, Hispanics will outnumber whites in this state. But immigrants help boost our fertility rate and yet they won't save us. Why not? Look at the Puerto Rican immigrants writes Last.  In 1955, 80,000 Puerto Ricans came to the United States. In 2010, just over 4,000.  Must have been immigration policy. But no, it actually got easier to immigrate. Rather the fertility rate collapsed. In 1955, Puerto Rico's fertility rate was 4.97. In 2007, it was 1.64. It's happening in all the Latin American countries. Mexico's fertility rate was 6.72 in 1970. In 2009, it was 2.07, dropping below replacement level. As the world's economies flourish, fertility rates are dropping worldwide. But wait there's more. Once immigrants come to this country, their fertility rate declines towards the national average. Our country is so good at assimilating people that immigrants adopt our fertility patterns as well. Between 2007 and 2010, the white fertility rate dropped 3% while Hispanic fertility dropped 9%, three times the white rate. 

What's this mean for us? Most of the population trends Last talks about won't become clear in our lifetime. Last believes the world population will top out around 10-12 billion and then slowly decline. Sub-Saharan Africa's fertility won't start dropping until 2070. So what's the point of all this?

Fred, you're saying saying birth control is bad, sex outside of marriage is bad, immigration is bad, if you don't marry and have children, you're irresponsible and evil and a bane on society and so forth. You might think I'm throwing numbers out to make you feel guilty and insecure and inadequate, that's not my point. You're certainly free to feel bad - it is a free country. But I recognize cohabitation, divorce, immigration, and the pill are here to stay. I get it. I'm not on a moral crusade here.

Get religion: See Last does show there is one thing, that no matter how you slice and dice the data - irrespective of race, income, and level of education, that always increases fertility rates: religion. The more religious you are (and it doesn't matter which religion), the more babies you have. 

So my point must be to get religion. But it's not. I would certainly recommend that but nobody becomes religious in order to have more kids and save the world. It's not causation though, it's correlation. Religious people see the world differently. As Christians we see the world as needing saving and that a savior might have us take some role in saving it.

Last writes that every study over the decades has the same results - take two people who are exactly the same in every demographic way - age, church attendance, education, race, whatever - and the one with kids will be 5.6% less likely to call themselves "very happy". Each additional child lops off another 1.6 points. I have four kids and I'm 12% under right now. Kids have not made my life happier. Certainly richer and more fulfilling, but not happier, well-rested, or more freedom.

Last writes "In a world where pleasure is the highest value, children will never be attractive". If your freedom serves pleasure, civilization as we know it will eventually end. Literally. There won't be any people left. 

In order to even want to have children, you have to believe in something bigger than yourself, something more important than your own pleasure, something higher than your pursuit of happiness. And as followers of Jesus, we're commanded to make disciples. If you're a Christian and God has called you to marriage, then make babies as God freely grants. Then make your kids disciples of Jesus. If you're not called accordingly, make spiritual babies of the people around you. And help them grow into disciples. Either way, make babies disciples. Either way, your life is not your own. Either way, pleasure is not your highest principle. That's how the world gets saved. 


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