Unsustainable America

(Michaela Rehle/Reuters)
Don’t underestimate the sociopolitical consequences of declining fertility.

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

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Birthrates fell or held steady for women of all ages except those in their early 40s. Teenagers saw the sharpest drop, with a 5 percent decline in their birthrate. Since peaking in 1991, the teen birthrate has fallen 73 percent.

Does that trouble you? It troubles me.

Some people will look at the forthcoming population decline and give a satisfied smile. Perhaps they believe that more humanity will be too great a Malthusian burden on the environment itself, with the annoying human demands for energy, food, and leisure. Or perhaps they see a wave of automation coming down the road, and believe that the already growing portion of non-working men could, in the absence of a declining birthrate, balloon to a point that a decent society — a decent life — becomes politically unsustainable.

I think the problems run almost all in the other direction.

First, there is literal atomization. Lower fertility very quickly withers the family tree, as more people are raised with fewer or no siblings, fewer or no cousins, fewer or no aunts and uncles. That is, more people in the future will grow up with shriveled kin networks, fewer relations with people who are obliged 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 kinds of independent civic associations that give a society its free character. The shriveling of nuclear and extended families means the diminishment of a powerful bulwark against the forces of social conformism, whether those come by mass media or direct political tutelage.

Next, there is the broader political orientation of low-fertility societies. They tend to lack confidence in the future, in part because there is a general consciousness that nobody is investing in it. They also tend toward suspicion and paranoia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, low fertility Prussian-German Lutherans developed fears of higher fertility Poles and Jews with rather disastrous consequences. But it doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that. Christopher Caldwell has written that in a high-fertility society, immigration is an influx of reinforcements; in a low-fertility society, natives receive immigrants as replacements. Yet a low-fertility society isn’t great for immigrants either, as their fertility rates are likely to converge to that of the broader society, causing their own family trees to wither.

The former Irish Times journalist John Waters recently called attention to The Vanishing Irish, a collection of essays from the 1950s about the demographic withering of Ireland. At the time, Ireland had a total fertility rate of 3.4: twice that of the U.S. today. One contribution, by John D. Sheridan, theorized that an internalized memory of the Famine haunted the people. “Without being conscious of it,” he wrote, “many Irish people are afraid to marry and have children without an assurance of material prosperity which more buoyant peoples do not require.”

Sheridan might have been getting at something in the Irish psyche of his time. But the phenomenon he details is not unique to Ireland. Americans are no longer a “buoyant people,” in this view. They, too, have adopted the capstone vision of marriage, looking for assurances of material prosperity ahead of the match and reducing the risk of testing the “for poorer” portion of their vows.

The worry, of course, is that almost no society climbs out of the population tailspin. Those withering family trees make recovery more difficult. Fewer siblings and aunts and uncles means less support for raising children. Delayed childbirth, that spike in fertility over 40, results in grandparents who can contribute less to the raising of their grandchildren, or who themselves require attention that might otherwise go to the forthcoming generation.

Conservatism is an attempt to make this world more like a home, where we have a place and role, where nothing and nobody is merely useful or merely familiar. Our respect for our social and religious inheritance is in some way determined by the prospect of passing it on. But if the chain is destined to break, all the bonds within it seem less valuable. To lose the future is to lose our past with it.

I do not know if there is any way out of the fertility decline through policy, though I don’t discount that policy can help. All I know is that the present course is, by definition, unsustainable.


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