Without new humans, growth will slow, and we will be less likely to reach the stars. But pro-natalism has been captured by a range of unsavoury voices. There is an alternative.
Life in the developed world in the 21st century is, for the average person, comfortable, or even good. We have big problems, like climate change, the pandemic and sluggish economic growth. So has every era. But our standard of living and technology would make our ancestors marvel.
Yet, despite this safety and comfort, the number of children being born in the developed world has been in a long decline. The total fertility rate (TFR), the number of children that the average woman has, is below 2.1 in almost all developed countries. That means that there aren’t enough children being born to keep the population stable. Worrying about this has become a calling card of the nationalist right. But raising the birth rate is a fundamentally progressive goal.
Along with rising life expectancy, this means that the average age in the world’s richest and most innovative countries is increasing, and the pandemic has accelerated this. This is a threat to progress that has been somewhat overlooked by many who think and care most about humanity’s future. We need to care more about natalism.
Generally, the wealthier a country is, the fewer children are born there. In 2019, the TFR averaged 1.53 births per woman across the European Union, ranging from 1.14 in Malta to 1.86 in France. The USA fared slightly better overall, with a TFR of 1.71. In my country, the United Kingdom, the TFR for England and Wales decreased from 1.7 in 2018 to 1.65 in 2019. The biggest exception to this rule among developed countries is Israel, which had a TFR of 3.01, driven mainly by high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews.
There’s also emerging evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the fertility rate even more. In England, provisional statistics estimate that the TFR dropped to 1.6 in the first three quarters of 2020, the lowest figure since comparable records began. If this pattern is matched in other countries, with no immediate uptick in births post-pandemic to compensate, the pandemic will have been doubly cruel. Not only will there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths from the disease, but thousands of happy lives that would have been lived won’t be.
An aging developed world with a declining population has several serious implications. On the individual level, it means that old people will be increasingly unable to rely on their younger families to care for them, meaning a far greater burden will be placed either on their remaining children or, in the case of childless couples, the state. On the national level, there will be fewer economically productive workers and the realities of electoral politics will mean that democracies will cater to changing demands, leading to ever-increasing attention and resources to mitigate the effects of aging with social care and pensions.
Governments of aging nations will represent the interests and fears of the old, likely meaning a more short-termist and more risk-averse approach to policy. Who cares about going to Mars when you’re worried about who is going to help you go to the toilet?
As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat discusses in his recent book, The Decadent Society, the indirect effects of aging societies are just as important:
Aging societies, societies with fewer young people coming up for every citizen aging into senescence, are simply less likely to be dynamic, less interested in risk taking, than societies with younger demographic profiles.
This could mean the developed world, which includes most of the world’s liberal democracies, becomes more and more irrelevant globally as it is overtaken by younger, more risk-loving societies. If the developed world is to successfully stare down the challenges it will face over the coming decades, it will need to have a constant flow of young people willing to come up with the ideas and technology we need to solve them. It is irresponsible to allow ourselves to age into a quiet twilight, particularly when our ideas and values are still so important to future human flourishing.
Most simply, fewer new people means fewer new ideas. Ideas are, as the Nobel-winning economist Michael Kremer noted, non-rivalrous. So each new good idea can benefit all of humanity, no matter how many other people there are. That should mean that, in the long run, the more people there are to come up with new ideas, the more of them we get, and the better off humanity is on average. Indeed, the more people there are to solve our hardest problems like climate change and biodiversity loss. In the very long run, from 1,000,000 B.C. to 1990, Kremer found that larger populations were associated with faster technological progress and population growth (the equivalent to economic growth in a Malthusian trap). As Adam Smith put it, the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market.
I find these arguments persuasive, but human beings do not exist just to improve the wider lot of humanity. The most compelling reason to want to increase the TFR is that life in the developed world is largely good. More children being born means more people living happy lives that are full of joy, new experiences, memories, laughter and love. Not only that, but successfully increasing the TFR to its replacement rate over several generations will mean those children, in turn, will have children of their own, leading to exponentially more happy humans born over the course of thousands of years.
This kind of pro-natalism is at risk of becoming a weird, low-status belief. Search for the terms “TFR” or “fertility” on social media, and you will find them being used by no end of creepy, unsavoury characters with an unhealthy interest in the private lives of women.
Natalism’s most high-profile political advocate is arguably Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán, who has introduced a swathe of ostensibly natalist policies, with the stated goal of increasing the birth rate in Hungary to replacement rate by 2030.
We can’t let such an important topic be dominated by such people. In fact, it is entirely because the cause is so serious, and some of the advocates of natalism are so grim, that we should reclaim it from them, and recast it as a way of empowering women and families, not turning them into tools of the nation.
At the same time, elite opinion may be moving slowly against natalism. Fears about climate change and overpopulation are often given in polling as reasons for not having children. Compounding this trend are organisations like Population Matters, a British charity which boasts the support of luminaries such as David Attenborough and “campaigns to achieve a sustainable human population, to protect the natural world and improve people’s lives.”
This may seem laudable, but in practice arguments like this are arguments for degrowth and depopulation — that population growth in our richest countries should slow and our populations decline in order to combat climate change. While I share their concern about climate change, this sinister asceticism in effect argues that it’s fine for populations to age, causing standards of living to regress, in order to save the planet. This will increase human suffering.
In reality, each extra person born will have a marginal impact on climate change, while an aging population will have less impetus to act to solve the problem. On its surface, degrowth may seem benign, but it is in fact one of the greatest enemies to the cause of progress.
While natalism is important, this does not mean that we should disrespect people’s individual choices not to have children. Just as humans are not economic units, so too are they not breeding machines. In a free and liberal society, we should respect individuals’ stated preferences and waste no energy trying to change peoples’ minds.
Encouragingly, though, pro-natalism need not depend on this view of humans as mere cogs in a machine. In practice, people are not avoiding children because they don’t want them, but instead they are failing to have the number they desire. Natalism among progressives should focus on the gap between desired and actual fertility — a gap which exists for both men and women. Across OECD countries with available data, the mean number of children that men say they want to have is just under 2.2 and for women is around 2.3 — both of which are above the population replacement-rate level of 2.1.
Underlining the importance of the fertility gap is the wide range of evidence that suggests that people end up having more children when the financial cost of parenthood is less burdensome, and vice versa. In fact, progressive pro-natalism is fundamentally about empowering and supporting women to do what they want, not bullying them into traditional gender roles.
The retirement of parents, who can then help with childcare, can raise fertility. Cheaper childcare, for example from more female migrants entering a country, can raise fertility. More generous maternity leave, which makes it less costly for women to take time out for kids, can raise fertility. Even a cash payment of just $1,000 raised fertility 1.8% in notoriously low-fertility Korea, where the extreme rat race to get children into top universities means hours of extra school work each day, expensive tutors and lots of extra parental time.
Housing is also vitally important. If housing is more expensive, then fewer and fewer people can afford the extra bedrooms they see as necessary for the children they desire. Many parents already move to the suburbs just to afford enough space for one or two children — others will judge that they don’t fancy the long commutes. Rising house prices may give current owners windfall financial gains, helping them afford children in the short run, but they make them more expensive for everyone in the long run.
One paper finds that the worsening housing shortage in the UK between 1996 and 2014 led to 157,000 fewer births. Another shows how American households delay childbearing by three to four years when they live in an expensive metropolitan area compared to a cheaper city with abundant housing.
None of these things would be true if fertility was only about culture and changing minds — as important as these things obviously are. All of them imply that even with today’s culture and today’s minds, simply removing prosaic real-world barriers to having children can help people have more of them. So supporting an increase in fertility above the replacement rate need not require changing any minds, but instead could focus on helping those families who want to have more children to have them. Closing the fertility gap could be our central policy aim.
In fact, many of the bigger long-term and global drivers of declining fertility are positive trends that we wouldn’t want to turn back. One example is infant mortality.
Globally, the share of the children who die in the first five years of their life has plummeted from a grim 43% in 1800 to 3.9% in 2017. This reduction is even more stark in Europe and North America, which had mortality rates of 0.47% and 0.67% respectively in 2019. This is one of the great successes of modernity, but it has the knock-on effect that parents need to have fewer births to achieve a desired number of children who survive. This is obviously an uncontroversial, good thing.
The rise of contraceptives and legal abortion may have decreased TFR by reducing unwanted pregnancies. Most in the West would view this as a positive shift. Yet further positive changes, such as the increase in women who enter the labour market and the increase in people who enter tertiary education, have pushed down the number of births unintentionally by pushing back the window when family formation can begin. People, particularly women, may find they have more opportunity overall, but with a knock-on effect on fertility, and they may still struggle to have all they want from life.
Without new children, growth will slow, our priorities will get distorted and we may not be able to reach the stars, deal with climate change or build the infrastructure necessary to prevent existential threats like asteroid impacts that would have wiped out previous generations of Earth’s inhabitants. Changing people’s minds with pro-fertility propaganda like that of Orbán’s Hungary is undesirable and unsavoury. But what can we do?
It is often argued that immigration, rather than increased fertility, can fix the problem of an aging society for developed nations. While I have no moral problem with immigration, and accept both its utility in lowering a country’s average age and that allowing migrants to move from poorer to richer countries can greatly improve world happiness, I worry that immigration on its own cannot be a long-term solution to the problems caused by low birth rates.
There is a sizable body of evidence that tells us that immigrants’ fertility converges with that of their host nation. This means that there needs to be a continuous flow of immigration over time in order for the average age in a country to stay stable. While immigration undoubtedly helps with an aging population, it also has a destabilising effect on democracies, which leads to bad electoral outcomes and policies. Many commentators believe the election of Donald Trump and the EU referendum result were in part responses to rapid immigration.
After all, how can we ask today’s voters to care about multigenerational issues like climate change if they have no direct descendants to worry about — no skin in the game for our shared future?
Thankfully, there are a number of options that states could explore to close fertility gaps. One option, as we have seen, is reducing the cost of having more children.
One way to do this is by reforming planning systems so that young families can afford to live in suitable accommodation in the most economically productive parts of their country. If you can’t afford the space for children, you won’t have them. We can also ensure that more people are able to live in properties that are physically large enough to fit the families they desire.
Similarly, more can be done to bring down the cost of looking after children. Childcare can be ruinously expensive and, in some areas, hard to find. There is evidence that increasing state expenditure on childcare through subsidies has a positive impact on fertility by reducing the opportunity cost of children. In particular, increasing childcare provision is more likely to influence the fertility of highly educated women, who are more active in the labor market. In the UK, it may not even be necessary for the state to step in: child-to-carer ratios have become so stringent that just taking the rules to the Norwegian level could halve average childcare costs.
This alone may not be enough, at least in the doses that are likely to be politically possible. There are further measures governments can explore: increasing paid parental leave and ensuring that it can be split easily between parents; experimenting with changes to the tax system that reward families for having more children; or vastly increasing the sums put into fertility research, with the aim of widening the fertility window and helping families have children later in life.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are lots of things many of us can do to make having children easier for those we love: offering to babysit more often; making inclusive plans at convenient times and places; and with small costs like meals, books and clothes. One of my main concerns about having children was that I would miss out on many of the things I enjoy, like meals out or holidays. This needn’t be the case. Next time you hear someone complaining about a baby crying on an airplane, tell them they’re being a jerk.
Those of us who care about progress should instead view trying to increase birth rates to close the fertility gap as a form of venture capitalism. Like VC, some of these policy choices will be costly, but they will be worth it if some long shots come off — if we are able to will into existence just one or two extra future Jeff Bezoses or Bill Gateses. To think otherwise, and to bow to the inevitability of demographic decline, would be an egregious form of cheems mindset.
Life in the developed world is good. It even has the potential to continue improving. Those of us who unambiguously believe this to be true — progressives in the truest sense of the word — should spend greater resources and effort into reclaiming natalism, understanding how we can best close the fertility gap and will more people into existence to enjoy this life.
Image by Insung Yoon on Unsplash.