Not long ago we worried about baby booms and overpopulation. Now
some people are worrying about a "Global Baby Bust." Writing in Foreign Affairs, Phillip Longman says it's mostly because of economics:
"In nations rich and poor, under all forms of government, as more and more of the world's population moves to urban areas in which children offer little or no economic reward to their parents, and as women acquire economic opportunities and reproductive control, the social and financial costs of childbearing continue to rise.
"In the United States, the direct cost of raising a middle-class child born this year through age 18, according to the Department of Agriculture, exceeds $200,000 -- not including college. And the cost in forgone wages can easily exceed $1 million, even for families with modest earning power. Meanwhile, although Social Security and private pension plans depend critically on the human capital created by parents, they offer the same benefits, and often more, to those who avoid the burdens of raising a family."
He's clearly right about the economics. Children used to provide
cheap labor, and retirement security, all in one. Now they're pretty
much all cost and no return, from a financial perspective. That
suggests that subsidies might solve the problem. Vladimir Putin thinks so,
as he plans to offer generous parental benefits to encourage citizens
to have more children, something that's necessary as Russia's
population is in absolute decline. (Italy, which is also in demographic
free-fall, is doing something similar).
Meanwhile, in the United States, commentator John Gibson is calling for "procreation, not recreation."
But I think that attitude is part of the problem. (Procreation not
recreation? As an old-timer once reportedly said in response to the Make Love, Not War, slogan: "Hell, in my time we did both.")
But Gibson's slogan unwittingly captures an important aspect of the
problem, in the United States and other industrial societies, at least:
We've taken a lot of the fun out of parenting. Or to echo Longman, the
"social costs" of parenting continue to rise, and, more significantly,
perhaps, the "social returns" continue to decline.
Parenting was always hard work, of course. But aside from the
economic payoffs, parents used to get a lot of social benefits, too.
But in recent decades, a collection of parenting "experts" and
safety-fascist types have extinguished some of the benefits while
raising the costs, to the point where what's amazing isn't that people
are having fewer kids, but that people are having kids at all.
This occurred to me recently while reading Caitlin Flanagan's new book, To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife.
Flanagan's book is mostly a comparison of her own housewifely and
maternal life with that of her mother, and one thing that struck me is
how much of what counted as acceptable -- or even exemplary --
parenting a generation ago would now be considered abuse and neglect.
Here's an example:
"My mother was by no means indifferent about me: I was her pet, the baby of the family. But back then children were not under constant adult supervision, even if their mothers were housewives. By the time I was five, I was allowed to wander away from the house as long as I didn't cross any big streets. I had the run of the neighborhood at six. . . . A nine-year-old could be trusted with a key; a nine-year-old knew how to work a telephone if anything went wrong. Moreover, anxiety as a precondition of the maternal experience had not yet been invented."
Nowadays, of course, children don't get the same treatment. (I have
heard repeatedly that my state's Department of Children's Services
considers it neglect to leave a nine-year-old alone in the house for
any time at all). Today's middle-class kids are always under the adult
eye. It's not clear that the kids are better off for all this
supervision -- and they're certainly fatter, perhaps because they get
around less outside -- but the burden on parents is much, much higher.
And it's exacted in a million tiny yet irritating other ways. Some are
worthwhile -- car seats, for example, are probably a net gain in safety
-- but even there the cost is high: I heard a radio host in Knoxville
making fun of SUVs and minivans: When he was a kid, he boasted, his
parents took their five children cross-country in an Impala sedan.
Nowadays, you'd never make it without being cited for neglect. And you
can't get five kids in a sedan if they all have to have car seats,
which these days they seem to require until they're 18.
Likewise, Flanagan notes the pressure to take children for a
seemingly endless array of after-school activities, most of which
require parental chauffering. Add to this the increasing amount of
parental responsibility for things their children do wrong, coupled
with steady legal diminution of parental authority (Flanagan mentions
an incident in which Caroline Kennedy was spanked for running off and
notes that today it might result in jail time -- an exaggeration,
perhaps, but not by much.) You're responsible for your kids in ways
previous generations weren't, but your ability to discipline them is
much reduced, and as my wife (a forensic psychologist) notes, the bad
kids know that they can cow most adults by threatening to call 911 and
make a bogus abuse charge. And forget disciplining your child, even
with a harsh word, in a public place: At the very least, if you do
you'll be looked on not as a virtuous parent helping to preserve the
social fabric, but as that worst of all sinners in contemporary
American culture: a meanie. And schools, anxious for parental
"involvement," place far more demands on parents than they did when I
was a kid.
There's also the decline in parental prestige over generations. My
mother reports that when she was a newlywed (she was married in 1959)
you weren't seen as fully a member of the adult world until you had
kids. Nowadays to have kids means something closer to an expulsion from
the adult world. People in the suburbs buy SUVs instead of minivans not
because they need the four-wheel-drive capabilities, but because the
SUVs lack the minivan's close association with low-prestige activities
like parenting, and instead provide the aura of high-prestige
activities like whitewater kayaking. Why should kayaking be more
prestigious than parenting? Because parenting isn't prestigious in our
society. If it were, childless people would drive minivans just to
partake of the aura.
In these sorts of ways, parenting has become more expensive in
non-financial as well as financial terms. It takes up more time and
emotional energy than it used to, and there's less reward in terms of
social approbation. This is like a big social tax on parenting and, as
we all know, when things are taxed we get less of them. Yes, people
still have children, and some people even have big families. But at the
margin, which is where change occurs, people are less likely to do
things as they grow more expensive and less rewarded.
So as we head into what looks like a major demographic debate, I
think we need to look beyond subsidies and finances to culture. If
people want to see Americans have more children, they should probably
ignore Putin's advice, and they should definitely ignore Gibson's
advice. They should look at ways of making parenting more rewarding,
and less burdensome, in social as well as economic terms.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a TCS contributing editor.