The Baby Bust: Who Will Do the Work? Who Will Pay the Taxes?

Edited by Fred R. Harris

Oh noes!

I read this book because I was looking for information on fertility rates and it caused me to have some thoughts. The slower rate of fertility decline in the United States compared to other modernized nation really is interesting; my uneducated self is starting to believe that it really is an economic situation more than a religious one. (I participate in a couple of Internet forums, two of which have a strong European presence. At regular intervals, a conversation will turn to a debate about how uptight and sexually repressed America is, which always includes talk about birth control and abortion availability.)

For no particular reason and with no active thoughts about it, my unconscious always assumed that low fertility rates in Europe were related to attitudes about sex and religion. I did not even know that I had such assumptions, until I started to read this book, and found myself confronting them. I guess those aren’t the worst assumptions to have. But one of the articles in this book attributes low fertility mostly to several interrelated factors:

  • High unemployment rates
  • High education levels
  • Delayed age of marriage/birth of first child
  • Higher divorce rates
  • Child spacing
  • Rigid work schedules

Availability of contraception is of course a contributing factor, but the book made it seem like it is a method people can use to space out babies or delay the age of first birth, not a primary reason for rates dropping. That makes sense. Whether or not you want children in the first place is a human thing, not a technology thing. Condoms and pills don’t change your biological imperatives–they just give you control over them.

What I had never considered before was just how tied up in each other’s business unemployment rates and education levels are–when there are no jobs readily available, you might as well stay in school. Education takes time… delays marriage… higher skilled jobs/careers less incentive to leave for childbearing et cetera et cetera…

The availability of contraception is important, but that really is only serving to delay the birth of the first child and the spacing of the child. Mostly it’s preventing women from having like six or more kids; it’s not affecting people’s decisions to start families in the first place. It’s sort of a red herring, I think, that doesn’t explicitly contribute to the decline of fertility rates to below replacement levels. American fertility rates have been dropping almost without interruption since the North American continent started being settled by Europeans. The birth control pill only indirectly pushes it along. END TANGENT

More interesting are speculations about why the United States has been able to keep fertility declining slower (even among non-immigrant families), especially those related to corporate culture. True, everyone complains that they just don’t have those wonderful childcare centers like in Sweden, but we have multiple kids anyway. One of the articles in this book spent some time at length discussing the phenomena of flex time, contract work, and all those extra hours that Americans work outside of the office, which are seen as inhumane when it comes to vacation time allotted but which turn out to allow a couple to require less childcare in the first place. Employees in Europe tend to be locked into 9 to 5 schedules with fewer opportunities to take work home or conduct business in the evenings and weekends. Yeah, it’s a shame that we can’t get off of email even at restaurants–how barbaric!–but two hours of work done in the evening mean two fewer hours at the office, which means both parents can juggle schedules and just handle childrearing themselves more.

Although I never thought about it, the factors impeding fertility rates seem to only affect second and third (and nth) children. People who want to have babies find plenty of ways to have the first. It’s replacement rates that are in decline, not the presence of families.

All that said, I read this book because I am reading about Japan. Boy is Japan in trouble. Not only is it suffering from major declines in the fertility rate, so far they absolutely refuse to grant citizenship to foreigners. You know who counts as a foreigner? Someone born in Japan to a Japanese man and a Korean mother, even if that person lives in Japan her whole life. They are working on that, but there are projections that say the Japanese population will start dropping 30 percent every 38 years. Either way, even if immigrants are suddenly welcomed, Japan as a “pure” race is doomed. Doomed, I say! So much for the rising sun.

Structure of the Book:
The book is a collection of scholarly essays, but only a few. It’s front-loaded with “baby bust” articles but the second half is about workplace and immigration politics, and Social Security in the future. Maybe a different person would have been interested in them. I can see how they create a total picture, but a good part of the book is not about the baby bust at all. I would have preferred reading about countries in which fertility is not a problem, or what it means if First World nations become a micropercentage of the global population. instead of reading reassurances about how Social Security isn’t as bad off as they say and we should have a higher minimum wage and more preschool. That part of the book was kind of predictable and not very interesting. You can read stuff like that in the newspapers. It just seemed strange to leave the topic of declining fertility when there is so much population growth worldwide. Surely that’s relevant!

Of course, what do I know? I’m not an academic. But come on. The cover of the book has an empty crib on it. What does an empty crib have to do with harnessing the labor power of rehabilitated criminals? It’s schizophrenic. I’d be interested in learning something about how the table of contents evolved during the production of this book.

All that said, should I feel a little guilty that I am not producing even a replacement rate of children? Of course, I’m youngish yet. Maybe I’ll have an empty nest crisis or a change of life baby and all the world’s problems will go away.

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