Dying Civilizations: The Threat Posed by Plummeting Birth Rates

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I ran across a piece in The Guardian about Japan’s demographic crisis. The piece, entitled “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” explores an interesting phenomenon unique to modern developed states–the tendency for birth rates to collapse as a civilization reaches higher levels of economic output. This is not a Children of Men scenario–affluent peoples are not becoming biologically infertile. Instead, we see a decreased desire on the part of citizens to have children or even to get involved in romantic relationships of any kind. What’s driving falling birth rates, and to how are they a problem? That’s my subject today.

The piece in The Guardian details with hard statistics the extent to which modern Japanese society has departed from historical norms:

  • Over the next half century, the Japanese population is expected to fall by a third.
  • 61% of unmarried men and 49% of unmarried women ages 18-34 are not in a romantic relationship, a 10% rise from 5 years ago.
  • 45% of women and a quarter of men age 16-24 claim they “are not interested in or despise sexual contact”.
  • Fewer babies were born in Japan in 2012 than in any other year on record.
  • 90% of young women believe that staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like”.
  • The state’s population institute projects that 25% of women in their early 20’s will never marry, and 40% will never have children.

What has pushed birth rates in this direction? There are several factors I identify working in tandem:

  1. Entitlements for the Elderly
  2. Birth Control
  3. Working Women

Each of these things is generally quite positive–it’s advantageous that elderly people do not have to worry about their financial solvency, that adults have more choice over when to have children, and that the economy can benefit from the productivity boost female workers provide. Yet, despite these broad advantages, these policies in combination work an insidious effect on the birth rate. I’ll consider each in turn.

Entitlements for the Elderly:

Several centuries ago, before Social Security, state healthcare, and other methods of popular insurance, the easiest, most practical way one could ensure that one’s needs would be met in old age was to have children, and ideally quite a few. Not only was it likely that some of one’s children would perish of disease, but the more children one had, the more resources one would presumably have access to.  This created a powerful incentive at the individual level for having children. The costs of raising them in one’s youth would be paid back in one’s dotage.

With the rise of entitlement programs for the elderly, however, individual prospective parents no longer worry about having children as an insurance policy. Not only can citizens rely on government programs to provide for them in retirement, but there are a variety of private sector retirement planning investments readily available to the average person, ranging from 401(k)’s to Roth IRA’s. The trouble is that while individual prospective parents no longer need to have children, these entitlement and investment programs rely on society as a whole producing a given quantity of children. In order to provide the taxes needed for entitlements and the economic growth needed for investments to prosper, societies need burgeoning young populations. We may no longer be individually dependent on our own children, but we are still dependent on somebody’s children. If everyone passes the buck and assumes other people will bear the costs of having children, birth rates are insufficient and entitlement programs fail. Systems of this nature exist in all modern developed countries, but no country has made a significant effort to prevent citizens from free riding because the decision to have children (or not to have children) is viewed as a private decision rather than something of public consequence.

Birth Control:

The prevalence of birth control has also played a role. Birth control has more or less de-linked sex from child production in the minds of most people in modern developed countries. Evolution has given us a strong sexual desire as a means to causing us to have children. Children were at one time the inevitable consequence of the fulfillment of sexual desire, but birth control allows us to transcend the biological imperative and separate out sex as entertainment from sex as reproduction.  I recall an old piece in The Week that observed some of the benefits of this–once most people began having sex primarily for the fun of it, homosexuality no longer seemed so very odd or off-kilter. When a baby is a horrifying unintended consequence of sex rather than an assumed likely byproduct, gays and straights suddenly have much more similar sexual lifestyles. That said, now one generally only has babies when one actually wants babies, and it turns out that people want babies much less frequently than they want sex.

Working Women:

The partition of roles between men and women has been crumbling for some time, and while this has emancipated both sexes to have lives more to their liking, it has also been steadily removing a sense of obligation on the part of either gender to create and care for children. As it turns out, a majority of people of both genders are more interested in doing other things, things that they simply cannot do while simultaneously playing the traditional maternal role. The piece in The Guardian reveals that 70% of  Japanese women who do choose to have babies are unable to do both jobs at once and end up quitting the workforce. While men are increasingly willing to play the traditional maternal role, they are not volunteering in sufficient numbers to allow for women to be able to have what is colloquially referred to as “it all”. When pushed to choose, women increasingly disproportionately choose their jobs.

Taken together, these three factors reveal one larger underlying fact–given the choice, many people would rather not have children. If there is no force, biological or sociological, compelling them to have and care for children, they will simply forego having them and pass the costs of maintaining our society onto their fellows. Many states have attempted to use incentives to get people to have children, offering things like “child benefit” to reduce the costs of childcare, but these incentives miss a crucial point–it’s not that people want to have children but wish to avoid the expense, it’s that people increasingly view the very act of raising children as a time cost, something to be avoided in itself.

What do we do about all of this? Before we can answer that question, I have to answer the skeptical reader. The skeptical reader (who may or may not be you), is upset by the underlying assumption in this piece that falling birth rates are a bad thing. He insists that the world already has too many people, and that if people don’t want to have children, that’s all fine and dandy. How do I answer the skeptical reader? First and foremost, the problems generally associated with population (starving people, water scarcity, etc.) are really problems of distribution. Developed countries are immensely productive and produce large surpluses of food for consumption in poor countries with inefficient or otherwise low-productivity agricultural sectors. Indeed, land use for farming is decreasing in the face of the tremendous technological efficiency of modern farming. The average citizen in a rich country produces much more than he consumes. While rising populations in countries with inefficient economies and poor infrastructure can be problematic (see Africa), rising populations in rich countries alleviate global scarcity rather than contribute to it. Skeptics who object to higher populations on environmental grounds must acknowledge that the fact that we presently provide for our energy via dirty means does not mean that we must necessarily do so–it is possible to grow the population in a clean and green way, we just don’t do it. Rather than oppose higher birth rates, these individuals should support transitions to alternative energies and methods of farming and housing that reduce land use (vertical farming, high-density urban living, and so on).

With that out of the way, let’s return to the question of solutions. It seems plain that modern developed countries will be unable to sustain their social systems through the traditional freely constituted nuclear families. While the autonomous creating and rearing of children will likely continue for a long time, it will not suffice in the long run for the birth rates developed states require in order to sustain their entitlement programs. While states can offer packages of monetary incentives to prospective parents, a large portion will nonetheless prefer employment and will not abandon it for a life of child-rearing. This leaves the state with three broad categories of policy options:

  1. Construct Families through State Coercion–force some number of people to have babies each year, possibly through some kind of lottery/draft system in combination with financial compensation.
  2. The State as Parent–the state makes babies in test tubes and employs a small army of professional caregivers to raise them communally.
  3. Abandon Entitlement Programs and Allow the Population to Fall

Option #1 is problematic insofar as people who become parents under coercion will likely do a bad job. Option #2 is probably better, though it’s disputable whether the state is capable of raising children communally in a way that is as effective as traditional parenting. The variable quality of parents under the existing system is an argument in favor of #2, but the much higher children per carer ratio raises doubts. Option #3 introduces lots of other issues down the line. Not only would the elderly be left out to dry, but in the long run falling populations would strangle growth and technological progress. The inevitable consequence is that states that choose option #3 will become militarily inferior to states that don’t, causing them to eventually be conquered, annexed, impoverished, turned into servile puppets, or otherwise subjugated by new masters with bigger populations, better guns, and stronger economies.

What will developed countries do? That remains to be seen–for now, it appears they’re intent on avoiding making the decision.