Thoughts on Action
"Contemplation often makes life miserable. We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live." ~ Nicolas de Chamfort

Busting America’s Baby Bust Argument

It’s hard to find a Childfree book or blog out there that doesn’t cite a desire not to contribute to overpopulation as a pretty solid reason not to have kids. So imagine my surprise when I opened a letter from my mom* and out tumbled a clipping of the Wall Street Journal’s “America’s Baby Bust” article, with the dramatic subtitle:

The nation’s falling fertility rate is the root cause of many of our problems. And it’s only getting worse.

But for such a strongly worded opening, the article falls short of explaining just what all those problems are, and how they stack up against the alternative – the pile of issues that arise in times of overpopulation. Jonathan Last, who penned the article, warns against the decline in innovation associated with low-fertility societies, but focuses mostly on the economic impact of an aging population, saying…

They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees.

Baby Bottle

Corbis; Photo Illustration by Keith A. Webb/The Wall Street Journal

Call me a pessimist, but I haven’t for one moment believed I’ll see a dime of social security when I round into my sixties. It’s why I started dutifully putting away fifty percent of my Burger King paycheck at the ripe young age of 15. It’s why Drew and I are pretty aggressive with our 401k and ROTH contributions.

And guess what – it’s part of the #1 reason why Drew and I are reluctant to have kids: we’re not sure we can afford them. Not having kids is a pretty darn good way to ensure we won’t have to rely on a potentially non-existent social security system some day. To suggest that we need to have babies to create more workers so someone will potentially fund our social security payouts seems, well, a bit like going about things the hard way. Or at the very least, a seriously high-stakes gamble.

And yet, Last believes that…

If our fertility rate were higher—say 2.5, or even 2.2—many of our problems would be a lot more manageable.

But what about the bajillion problems that would be entirely unmanageable if we got that fertility rate up that high? Do we really need to send more kids into already over-crowded classrooms to get a crap education? Do we need working moms to increase the number of days they need to be out with a sick child? More kids on welfare? More crowded prisons? Less places for me to buy already outrageously overpriced homes in Southern California? More energy, water and trees being used up for diapers, laundry and homework?


Not referencing these, the article instead shifts focus to the source of the decrease:

There’s a constellation of reasons for this decline: Middle-class wages began a long period of stagnation. College became a universal experience for most Americans, which not only pushed people into marrying later but made having children more expensive. Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men. More important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing. And the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.

This is only a partial list, and many of these developments are clearly positive.

Many of them are positive? Which of them aren’t – that part about people focusing education, or the one about women having careers? I’m about the furthest thing from a feminist, but even I was a little ruffled by that one. But even more disturbing was the follow-up passage on happiness:

There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that “happiness” is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we’re going to reverse this decline, we’ll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.

Mere happiness? Sort of a dismissive adjective for such a life-altering,. The Dalai Lama told us the purpose of our lives is to be happy. Thomas Jefferson found it important enough to name as one of our unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, placed on the same shelf as life and liberty. I’m going go ahead and argue that a life without happiness isn’t worth living. Is it not then worthy of being a primary (if not the only) consideration in making major life choices? Perhaps he meant to say fleeting or temporary or shallow happiness as most people do who are so quick to judge the Childfree. But he didn’t, so I suppose we’re left to assume that happiness in general shouldn’t be considered a marker for the well-lived life.

He does, however, have a solution for making the act of parenting a happier and easier state of being, believing that…

The government cannot persuade Americans to have children they do not want, but it can help them to have the children they do want.

His remedy? Tax breaks, higher education reform and additional telecommuting options. A good (if not unfair for the Childfree) start. But what about the other things that make it so difficult to raise children today? Insufficient maternity leave policies in a workplace that expects total career dedication? Insane childcare costs? Grandparents, aunts and uncles spread out across the world and entirely unavailable to share the burden? Dora the Explorer videos on loop?

I get it. There are significant economic and social impacts that go along with a fledgling fertility rate. But it seems strange to ignore the glaring problems associated with trying to place the load of parenting responsibilities on a society ill-equipped to handle it gracefully. Stranger still to sum it all up with Mr. Last’s closing statement:

If we want to continue leading the world, we simply must figure out a way to have more babies.

*Note: My mom sent me the article not because she agrees with The Wall Street Journal’s inspirational notes on maintaining our world domination, but because she likes sending me what she refers to on sticky notes as simply “more blog fodder”.

Fodder, indeed!

22 Responses to Busting America’s Baby Bust Argument

  • Stephanie says:

    Great post! I was so glad to read your asterisk at the end after being vaguely annoyed at your mom the whole time I was reading.

    This issue frustrates me SO much. The idea that having more children and increasing global population as a solution to our problems is so painfully short sighted. The issue is not that we should further tax our globe and our governments with more mouths to feed and brains to educate. The issue is that for many decades we’ve produced TOO many people and as a result, we’re now having challenges taking care of them as they age. I agree, that sucks. And I agree it’s going to be a tough hurdle to overcome, but if we can do it, we might come out on the other side with a smaller world population, better schools and a more sustainable environment. That, not having babies as an insurance plan, is what I’m betting on.

  • Kate says:

    Great post!

    But I have to touch on your feminist comment. A feminist is someone who believes in equality between men and women. That’s it. It doesn’t mean you hate men, stop shaving your legs and so on and so forth. You believe women should have equal rights to men right? Then you are in fact a feminist and should be proud, not ashamed to say so.

    It makes me so sad that in 2013 so many women seem to associate feminism with something extreme and wrong.

    • Maybe Lady
      Maybe Lady says:

      You’re quite right, I was using that term incorrectly. It’s amazing how the true definition of words gets so lost over time!

  • Marie says:

    Ok this is exactly why the WSJ and NYT should not be in the business of running blogs. This guy’s essay is absolutely terrible in terms of quality of writing and content and the WSJ should be ashamed of itself. (Your writing is lovely, not commenting on that!)

    Blogs are wonderful for sharing thoughts and experiences, but the model breaks down as a forum to debate such large scope issues as maternity leave, whether daycare workers should be paid more than the burger flippers at McDonalds, or the true meaning of happiness.

    Please don’t give this yahoo Baby Bust guy and his poorly constructed arguments any more oxygen than they already have. You rightly note many complex and highly relevant issues but framing them against his craptastic essay does absolutely nothing to advance the discussion.

    (By the way, The Economist ran a brief piece on the US fertility rate in December and it seems like Mr Lust pretty much lifted their conclusions, added some of his own drivel, and published.)

    Oh – and regarding his last comment that you pasted in, I’m always amused when men suggest that “having more babies” is just like adding a few more items to the cafeteria tray. Is he volunteering to have a uterus implanted in himself? No man should ever be allowed to utter such a stupid string of words, just on principle.

    • Maybe Lady
      Maybe Lady says:

      That IS the thought I kept having as I read it – that I couldn’t believe that something of that quality came out of the WSJ. Granted, I never read the WSJ and have no idea how this stacks up comparatively.

      • Marie says:

        The WSJ is arguably one of only a handful of mainstream media organizations that most people would agree have high journalistic standards and high quality writing. Makes this stupid piece even more deplorable.

  • Suki Magara says:

    Hi Maybe Lady! I’m a fairly new reader and have enjoyed your blog so far. I’ve even read pretty far back in the archives so far, and plan on reading all your posts.

    This is a really great post with many excellent points. There were some that I had never thought of. However, I have two minor quibbles: One, “I’m about the furthest thing from a feminist, but…”

    [fem-uh-nist] Show IPA
    adjective Sometimes, fem·i·nis·tic.
    advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men.
    an advocate of such rights

    A feminist someone who believes women should hold rights equal to those of men. Period. No stereotypes, no bra-burning, no other “radical” behavior necessary.

    Two, one of our unalienable rights is the PURSUIT of happiness, not happiness itself. I think that emphasizing the pursuit part could even strengthen your argument. Thanks for the great blog, I think it’s a great resource for people on both sides of (and on) the fence.

    • Maybe Lady
      Maybe Lady says:

      Yes, Kate busted me on the feminism comment already! :) And you’re correct on the pursuit part, but my point was mainly just that happiness in general is an INCREDIBLY important part of the well-lived life.

      • Suki Magara says:

        Absolutely. Again, great post!

      • Suki Magara says:

        Also, just read Kate’s comment – she and I were thinking in the same vein! When I posted, no comments had been moderated yet, so I didn’t know I’d be redundant. Great mind think alike, I guess! ;)

  • Scott says:

    So, I don’t get conclusion I’m supposed to apply from the arguments in that article.

    Am I supposed to do my patriotic duty to my country by having at least 2 biological children? Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

    Is this the reason why
    ANYONE has children today? To make society better? I don’t think so.

    I’d also like to point out that the article theoretically should be just as critical of single-child households. If you have only one child, you are also shirking your responsibility to your country. The replacement rate is 2, not 1, but 2. Those people with only one kid must also be lazy, good-for-nothing selfish monsters.

  • Scott says:

    Sorry, a little more rambling here. What is often overlooked is that the American birthrate has been declining for over 200 years, not just recently, not just because of those gosh-darned feminists, but it’s something every industrial and post-industrial society goes through, and so far it appears to be virtually impossible to stop this trend. In fact, you could say it’s a 200 year tradition that every generation in America has fewer children on average than the generation before. The only exception? The 1950′s.

  • Alex says:

    Proposing higher population growth as a cure-all for the problems of an aging population is crap logic. So then what happens when the baby boom that was born to take care of the all the old people itself gets old? What, then we’ll need an even bigger baby boom to take care of the first one, right? And then when THEY get old… See the problem here? Infinite growth is not sustainable. This logic is a pyramid scheme. One large generation that ages is a short-term problem. It only becomes long-term if the generations that follow it are also large.

    Not to mention that having children because “we need more workers!” is not only crap logic, it’s also morally and ethically repugnant. Children aren’t “future workers.” They are human beings who deserve to be wanted and respected on their own merits and to live in a world that still has clean water. Perhaps that will mean restructuring society and rethinking our economic system in a way that honors that instead of just seeing people as cogs in a machine, but unlike the blindly pronatalist assholes, I don’t see that as a bad thing.

    I also just LOVE the “we need more people because more people=more geniuses who will solve our problems” non-argument. So, if it were that simple, then why hasn’t the author of this article saved the world yet? Why didn’t his parents? (I’m sure they thought THEIR child would have cured cancer by now instead of penning idiotic missives like this one.) Or his friends, or neighbors, or coworkers? Gee, could it be because most people are just regular joes? (And that overcrowding classrooms thanks to unchecked breeding means we’ll get even fewer smart people in the future?) Could it be, just possibly, that not every problem can be solved? That there are forces in the world even stronger than human greed and ego? Like the weather? Or finite resources? I think people who aren’t scientists tend to forget that scientists aren’t god. They are regular, perhaps above-average smart people who happen to have studied certain things. They aren’t going to save the world any more than I am.

    And re: Social Security, frankly, I do think it’s only fair that every society makes sure its elderly (and people who aren’t elderly) aren’t homeless and eating cat food. I shouldn’t have to be responsible for funding my entire retirement. No one should. That’s barbaric. Every other first world country on earth (and some of the not-first world ones), even ones with lower birthrates than the US, has strong social safety nets to protect its citizens. I see no reason why the US government or its taxpayers should be exempt from basic morality. (I know you didn’t argue any of that, it just comes to mind whenever I hear people say they don’t expect SS to be around when they get old.)

    • Maybe Lady
      Maybe Lady says:

      Yup, someone else in the comments on the original article referred to it as a pyramid scheme as well. You’d think we would’ve learned our lesson with those pyramids by now…

  • Marie says:

    Don’t mean to comment for a third time, but a co-worker mentioned this randomly today:

    So here is our social experiment in what happens in a country with a low birthrate and no government social “safety net”. You could be forced to visit your elderly parents or else they will sue you!

  • Jessica Holt says:

    It really irritates me when people spout off nonsense about the need to *increase* the population to solve problems that are caused by poor money management and planning. For example: Social Security, maybe if instead of living off of the worker’s wages, the governement took the money we gave them for Social Security, SAVED it in an account instead of spending it on whatnot and then voila, when we go to retire it’s actually THERE and whether or not people pop out 5 more kids to support the Social Security system would be totally irrelevent. I’d like to see an article about people in general doing some responsible life planning instead of depending on a growing population to support them. Bullocks!

    • Maybe Lady
      Maybe Lady says:

      Yup, it just seems so counter-intuitive on so many levels to say that having more kids is going to make you more financially stable in the long run.

  • I`m one of the post war baby boomers, & iv`e suffered as a result. I went to schools were there was 40 or more kids to a class, & iv`e missed out on so much because there were just too many of us. Job shortages when I was a young adult, & now they say that there might not be enough money for our old age pensions because of the sheer number of older people. Whose fault is that? our parents generation, that`s who`s to blame! Why did they have to breed like rats? No-one can blame my generation for these problems. If our parents had shown a little restraint, & controlled their fertility we wouldn`t be in the mess wer`e in now.

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