Unsustainable America

(Michaela Rehle / Reuters)

Don’t underestimate the socio-political consequences of declining fertility.

Americans are having fewer babies than ever, or at least since the government began tracking the overall fertility rate in 1909. The overall fertility rate dropped to 1.7 in 2019, meaning the average number of babies an American woman would have in her lifetime is well below the replacement level.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Birth rates declined or remained stable for women of all ages except those in their early 40s. Teenagers saw the sharpest decline, with a 5 percent drop in their birth rate. Since the peak in 1991, the birth rate for teens has fallen by 73 percent.

Do you mind? Its bothering me.

Some people will watch the impending population decline and give a happy smile. Maybe they believe that more humanity will be too much of a Malthusian burden on the environment itself, with the annoying human demands on energy, food and leisure. Or maybe they are seeing a wave of automation on the way and believe that the lack of a declining birth rate could lead to the growing number of non-working men rising to a point where a decent society – a decent life – is becoming politically untenable .

I think almost all of the problems go in the other direction.

First, there is literal atomization. Lower fertility very quickly withers the family tree, because more people are raised with fewer or no brothers and sisters, fewer or no cousins, fewer or no aunts and uncles. That is, more people will grow up with shriveled kin networks in the future, fewer relationships with people who are required to socialize and network with each other. I think this is a disaster for many people trying to develop a sense of comfort and confidence in the world. And the family itself is a school and support for the kind of independent social associations that give a society its free character. The shrinking of nuclear and extended families means the decline of a powerful bulwark against the forces of social conformism, whether through the mass media or through direct political guardianship.

Then there is the broader political orientation of low fertility societies. They tend to have no confidence in the future, in part because there is a general awareness that no one is investing in it. They also lean towards suspicion and paranoia. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, low-fertility Prussian-German Lutherans developed a fear of Poles and higher-fertility Jews, with rather disastrous consequences. But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Christopher Caldwell has written that immigration is an influx into a society of high fertility reinforcements; in a low fertility society, native Dutch receive immigrants like replacements. But a low fertility society isn’t great for immigrants either, because their fertility rates are likely to converge with those of the wider society, withering their own family trees.

The former Irish Times journalist John Waters called attentio recentlyn to The disappearing Irish, a collection of 1950s essays on the demographic withering of Ireland. At the time, Ireland had a total fertility rate of 3.4: twice that of the United States. A contribution, by John D. Sheridan, theorized that an internalized memory of the Famine haunted people. “Without being aware,” he wrote, “many Irish people are afraid of getting married and having children without the security of material prosperity that more affluent people don’t need.”

Sheridan may have had something in the Irish psyche of his day. But the phenomenon he describes is not unique to Ireland. Americans are no longer a “floating people” according to this view. They, too, have adopted the cornerstone vision of marriage, looking for guarantees of material prosperity before the game and reducing the risk of testing the ‘poorer’ part of their vows.

The concern, of course, is that almost no society climbs out of the downward spiral of the population. Those who die are making recovery more difficult. Fewer siblings and aunts and uncles means less support for raising children. Delayed childbirth, which peaks in fertility above 40, results in grandparents who can contribute less to their grandchildren’s upbringing, or who need attention themselves that might otherwise go to the next generation.

Conservatism is an attempt to make this world more like a home, where we have a place and role, where nothing and no one is merely useful or simply familiar. Our respect for our social and religious heritage is somehow determined by the prospect of passing it on. But if the chain is destined to break, all the tires in it seem less valuable. Losing the future is losing our past with it.

I don’t know if there is a way out of the decline in fertility due to policy, although I am not ignoring that policy. All I know is that the current course is by definition untenable.

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