If we wish to solve a problem – even, work out whether to describe something as a problem or not – we’ve got to be able to correctly decide the cause of the thing we’re looking at. As well as, you know, get the numbers themselves right:
Yet somehow, despite all this incessant collective nagging, we seem to be heading for a baby drought. This week brought news of yet another fall in British birthrates, and for the first time they’re falling even among immigrant mothers, whose tendency to have larger families has for years quietly propped up the nation’s declining fertility rates.
No, immigrant fertility rates always fall. First generation immigrants tend – tend – to be somewhere just below the fertility rate of their source culture. By about the third generation then fertility rates will be the same as the host one. Largely because by the third generation those grandchildren of immigrants are the host population.
Thus immigrant birthrates have always been falling for much to most immigration to Britain is and has been from places with higher than domestic fertility rates.
But it also reflects the fact that fertility rates are falling around the world, as the most highly educated generation of women ever to reach childbearing age wrestle with choices that simply weren’t open to their grandmothers.
It’s not the education of women that lowers fertility rates. Sure, we can see a correlation between the two but it is a correlation. The underlying cause is increased wealth. Richer societies have fewer children. The connection with education is that once women are not pregnant or lactating their entire adult lives then it’s actually worth educating them to do something other than lactate. So, given that humans are rational, we do.
But we’ve got to make the people rich for the birthrate to drop which is what makes female education economically sensible. Do, by the way, note the “economically” there. It might well be morally righteous that all get the same chance to exercise their brains in their path through life. But as history shows us in disturbing detail peeps tend to do what is economically sensible, not what is morally so.
In the US the birthrate hit a 30-year low last year, while Japan suffered the biggest population decline on record.
Places that are getting richer, see? And yes, Japan is, per capita, still getting distinctly richer.
According to the UN, global population will peak at the end of this century before falling thereafter, transforming the way we think about our once teeming planet. Good news for depleted natural resources, maybe, but a red flag for economic growth –
Nope. We expect the ever so slightly more people in 80 odd years to be some four times richer than we are now. The slowdown in population is already accounted for in that.
although it should be said that a crucial driver of that growth for the last few decades has been the surge of women going out to work. Funny how the economic upsides of female liberation never get quite so much coverage as the downsides.
Women going to work in the market economy has certainly added to growth, yes. But it’s not been a main driver. Increased productivity has been.
For years, conventional wisdom has been that policymakers could bump up the birthrate by investing in cheap childcare and flexible working, so that women didn’t face such agonising choices between work and motherhood. (For that is what “leaving it too late” so often boils down to in practice; not couples clean forgetting to have a baby, but women seeing what happens to other mothers in the office and not daring to risk a pregnancy until they feel more professionally established, by which time it’s often harder to get pregnant.) But now birthrates are tapering off even in Sweden, with its world-beating parental leave, heavily subsidised nurseries and an egalitarian culture that firmly encourages men to share the load with their exhausted partners.
Quite so, all those feminist demands were wrong, weren’t they?
And that’s where the policy debate starts scratching at the surface of dark feelings many parents can’t admit even to themselves: not regret, exactly, so much as suppressed resentment about the inevitable sacrifices demanded by children and the occasional guilty daydream about what otherwise might have been.
If only people bothered to listen to economists. Who have been saying the following for decades. There are opportunity costs, always. In a richer society the costs of having children will be higher as there are more alternatives, more opportunities. Therefore there will be fewer children.
The more motherhood comes to be seen as a choice, rather than an unavoidable fact of female existence or some kind of great romantic destiny, the greater the anxiety both about making the wrong choice and about living with the ghost of the life not chosen.
That’s what opportunity costs are – the ghosts of lives not chosen.
Better, perhaps, to treat a shrinking population less like an annoying economic aberration to be corrected, and more like a riddle of human happiness. Where people are struggling to have the family lives they want, then of course government’s role is to step in: to create the stable jobs, affordable homes and family-friendly working conditions that make it possible. But if millennials are simply thinking harder than previous generations did before having children – or if some people who would in generations past have felt railroaded into an unwanted family life are now finding the courage to remain childfree – well, that’s very different. Sometimes good governance, much like good parenting, is a question of knowing when it’s really none of your business.
Yes, quite, it’s known as being a liberal. How other people live their lives is their business.