Writing for TechCentralStation.Com, Pavel Kohout asks “where have all the children gone?” specifically in Europe where birth rates have fallen through the floor. Pavel ends up blaming everything from pay-as-you-go government-run retirement programs, heavy taxation that disproportionately effects younger people, and an increasingly secular culture. Oddly, what it all comes down to is this — young people have to be given an incentive to have children. Without that incentive, they simply don’t (at least enough of them choose not to that it has brought birth rates down far below replacement level in many European countries).
This is correct, in my opinion, but it represents a pretty radical shift in thinking. When doomsayers were writing about the horrors of overpopulation in the 1960s and 1970s they offered a slightly different version of human reproduction. On their model, human beings were simply another animal that followed the same sort of population dynamic models that animals such as deer did. Inevitably, they maintained, human beings would do what every other animal does and convert additional resources into additional offspring. The richer we got, the more offspring we’d have in a loop that would ultimately lead to the sort of population crash that animals such as deer experience.
But a funny thing happened along the way. After reaching a certain level of societal wealth, many people choose to severely limit the number of children they have or forego having children at all.
This, of course, culminated with an event in the 1960s that must have seemed very bizarre from the biological reductionist model. Effective, safe chemical birth control was introduced and in wealthy societies became ubiquitous. In the United States, birth control is so common that government experts became worried when a report on birth control use found that in 2002, of women who had had sex three months prior to a study of their birth control habits, 7.2 percent had not used any form of birth control.
Or, to put it another way, 92.8 percent of sexually active women were intentionally reducing their risk of becoming pregnant. This is an extremely odd behavior if you look at humanity purely through a biological model. Do members of any other species go to such lengths to reduce their fertility and lower their odds of propagating their genes?
Now, however, some like Kohout worry that we’ve gone too far. As he writes,
In the so-called “New Europe”, the situation is even gloomier. According to UN projections, Latvia will lose 44 percent of its population by 2050 as a result of demographic trends. In Estonia, the population is expected to shrink by 52 percent, in Bulgaria 36 percent, in Ukraine 35 percent, and in Russia 30 percent. In comparison with these figures, the projected population decline in Italy (22 percent), the Czech Republic (17 percent), Poland (15 percent) or Slovakia (8 percent) looks like a small decrease. France and Germany will lose relatively little population, and the population of the United Kingdom will even see a slight growth — thanks to immigrants.
But what real options are there to prevent this?
Kohout argues that the pay-as-you-go retirement systems common throughout Europe create a negative incentive to have children. In previous generations, he argues, couples would have had children in part to ensure their own financial survival when they were too old to work. That may or may not be true, but its hard to see how to get away from that now. After all the knock on government-run pay-as-you-go social security systems is that they underperform. If they are eliminated they will simply be replaced with non-government schemes that, if anything, are likely to be more efficient. And even if they are not immediately, at some point a given society is going to become wealthy enough that economic fortunes in old age can be moreorless assured with private means. Short of prohibitive taxes on people over 50, its hard to see how an alternate regime could be created.
Similarly, Kohout argues that the European welfare state disproportionately affects the young, who have relatively less income and wealth, and so acts as a disincentive to have children. Couples who are barely making it or relying on public assistance are, presumably, less likely to have children who might represent a further drain on their limited resources. Frankly, though, its just as likely that additional disposable income from lower taxes would simply go to additional consumption. After all, there are certainly many couples who could afford another child if they simply forgone buying that late model SUV or similar luxuries, but who find they can be fulfilled having a small number of children, or none at all, and still enjoy the fruits of the sort of consumption levels that citizens of Western nations enjoy.
Finally, Kohout cites cultural and social issues, but that’s a losing cause as well. Basically, Kohout notes the obvious that societies that are very religious are producing many more offspring than societies that are very secular. Of course many of those relatively religious societies, such as in the Middle East, perceive their culture as threatened by the secularism that Western culture and economic success are spreading across the globe. Besides, its hard to see how one could reinstill non-secular values to the extent they existed in the past in now-secularized countries.
Certainly its possible to envision possible future cultural changes. Perhaps children born to relatively small families will react against that and grow up to have large families. Perhaps at some point per capita income in developed countries will reach the point where the trend will swing around and couples will begin having more children simply because the opportunity cost of each additional child suddenly becomes relatively low.
Or, more likely, we’ll do what we’ve always done — adapt. I suspect the same human beings who could do the unheard of thing from a natural selection standpoint and voluntarily limit their own fertility will also come up with creative solutions and ways to deal with an increasingly older population and an age structure unlike anything every experienced before in history. For the past several thousand years people have been saying “this situation is unique and will prove a disaster,” and yet we keep chugging along, finding ways to respond and adapt to whatever challenges face us.
My prediction — 50 years from now we’ll have figured out how to adapt to the coming demographic changes, only to have people wringing their hands in learned articles and books about the next supposedly insurmountable challenge.
Where Have All The Children Gone. Pavel Kohout, TechCentralStation.Com, January 27, 2005.