Reproduce and multiply

nochildrenOne of the most important decisions made in a newsroom is story selection. The editors of the New York Times Sunday Magazine made a very interesting decision in choosing to run a lengthy story about the demographic collapse of Europe. Reporter Russell Shorto, whose work we’ve looked at before, examines various explanations for the low birth rates in Europe in his piece titled “No Babies?”

His main theory seems to be that when the traditional family met modernity, cultures that adapted fared better. Better is a relative term, however. His example of success is Northern Europe, where the birth rates still aren’t near replacement level.

The average number of births per women to maintain a country’s population level is 2.1. A 2002 report showed that birthrates in southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3. That means that — all else equal — the country’s population will be halved in 45 years and will never be able to recover. Such a rate is called “lowest-low fertility,” and it’s worrying various public policy analysts, according to the story. In the 1960s, Europe represented 12.5 percent of the world’s population. Today it is 7.2 percent, and if current trends continue, by 2050 only 5 percent of the world will be European. And it’s not just Europe. Where only a few decades ago my elementary school teachers were proclaiming the looming disaster of overpopulation, birthrates have plummeted from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today.

The story only aims to explore a few theories for why birthrates vary in Europe, but I do wish Shorto had explored why people think it’s problematic. The article mentions many people who think the birthrates are dangerously low:

To many, “lowest low” is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions. “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular,” Letizia Mencarini, a professor of demography at the University of Turin, told me. “But if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago, you would see that nobody foresaw that the fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s, the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3, and for some towns in Italy it is less than 1. This is considered pathological.”

It may seem obvious why this is a problem but later in the story, Shorto speaks with people who think declining birthrates in Europe are fantastic. So why the two sides differ is needed. Why is it bad if a society dies out? Why is this pathological?

Readers of Shorto will not be surprised that he does not shy away from religious discussion. As is reinforced daily, religious views will have a tremendous effect on how they order their sex lives:

There is no shortage of popular explanations to account for the drop in fertility. In Athens, it’s common to blame the city’s infamous air pollution; several years ago a radio commercial promoted air-conditioners as a way to bring back Greek lust and Greek babies. More broadly and significant, social conservatives tie the low birthrate to secularism. After arguing for decades that the West had divorced itself from God and church and embraced a self-interested and ultimately self-destructive lifestyle, abetted above all by modern birth control, they feel statistically vindicated. “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future,” Pope Benedict proclaimed in 2006. “Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present.” In Germany, where the births-to-deaths ratio now results in an annual population loss of roughly 100,000, Ursula von der Leyen, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s family minister (and a mother of seven), declared two years ago that if her country didn’t reverse its plummeting birthrate, “We will have to turn out the light.”

But Shorto brushes aside spiritual concerns to focus on economic ones. A great deal of time is spent looking at how labor force participation among women correlates to fertility rates. And the European data are quite interesting. Apparently one way to increase fertility rates is to have a, well, nanny state. But the United States has a fertility rate of 2.1 — far higher than Europe — and much less socialism. Which brings us back to a religious mention:

Some commentators explain its healthy birthrate in terms of the relatively conservative and religiously oriented nature of American society, which both encourages larger families. It’s also true that mores have evolved in the U.S. to the point where not only is it socially acceptable for fathers to be active participants in raising children, but it’s also often socially unacceptable for them to do otherwise.

Another factor in our high birth rate seems to be the flexibility of our labor force. While many European countries give mothers approximately eleventy gazillion taxpayer-funded weeks off when they have their maternity leave, labor force flexibility helps here. Women are more content to take time off to have children because they sense they can make up the difference after their kids head off to school.
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The most fascinating part of the article, however, deals with Germany. Some urban planners are welcoming their cities’ demises. Dessau, where the architect Walter Gropius planted the Bauhaus school of design, is surrounded by forest with no historic town center (80 percent of the city was destroyed in World War II). City planners are demolishing underused sections of the city with every decrease of the population. Twenty-five-hundred flats have been destroyed with 8,000 on the chopping block. One gets the feeling that Shorto finds the whole thing a bit creepy:

Eisleben, another of the cities in the consortium, has a picture-perfect 16th-century downtown but is losing people fast, and many of its historic buildings have been long unused and uninhabitable. Eisleben’s shrinkage strategy centers on history: it happens to be the birthplace of Martin Luther. The city is laying out a tourist route — from the house in which Luther was born to his first church to the church in which he gave the last sermon before he died — that shows off its old center and turns its many derelict buildings and empty lots into art installations related to the father of Protestantism. The idea is to attract more tourists and money and build up the locals’ pride in their history. There is a certain paradox here: thanks to its Communist heritage, this part of Germany has the distinction of being one of the least religious places on earth. Eisleben gets 100,000 religious pilgrims a year, but only 14 percent of its population are churchgoers, and hardly anybody expects a turnaround.

But while few locals themselves may feel religiously inclined, the thinking is that if religious pilgrimage is the best card in your hand, you play it. This notion — embrace shrinkage in order to revitalize your economy, rather than trying to coax women to have more babies — is, according to more than a few observers of the European scene, the right tack. Or better said, it is one part of the best overall strategy — one that embraces population decline. For there are those who argue that low birthrate in itself is not a problem at all. Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford scientist who warned us about the “population bomb” in the 1960s, is more certain than ever that the human race is catastrophically straining the planet. “It’s insane to consider low birthrate as a crisis,” he told me. “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels. We have to do that because we’re wrecking our life-support systems.”

Religious ghosts haunt stories that deals with life and death issues such as these. So it’s wonderful that Shorto didn’t just acknowledge the role religion plays but included religious voices and concerns in the story. And, again, kudos to the editors for selecting this story. Much more could and should be written about this topic so hopefully other media outlets will follow suit. People who are interested in this topic would also do well to watch this 2007 documentary which covers much of the same ground.

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  • Brian

    “Basically every person I know in my section of the National Academy of Sciences thinks it’s wonderful that rich countries are starting to shrink their populations to sustainable levels.”

    Too funny. I 100% guarantee that Ehrlich could update Pauline’s Kael famous 1972 quote by saying “I don’t know how Bush could have won, no one I know voted for him!”

    Why it is that we should think that entomologists (such as Ehrlich & Kinsey) have anything more useful to say about the workings of human society than an auto mechanic might is beyond comprehension. I’d say you have to be really, really smart to think something so foolish.

  • Jerry

    On the surface there are economic explanations for why this phenomenon has occurred in southern Europe.

    It would be better to have put the story in a world-wide context as wikipedia does. That context shows that the economic curve is world wide and looking at individual national fertility rates provides food for many questions.

  • Karen H

    Tunnelling down further, from the Brookings Institute:

    http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2003/03middleeast_taspinar.aspx

    “Today, the Muslim birth rate in Europe is three times higher than the non-Muslim one. If current trends continue, the Muslim population of Europe will nearly double by 2015, while the non-Muslim population will shrink by 3.5 percent.”

    Which, to me, definitely points to a religious vs. secular reason. If this continues, you’ll see a largely Muslim Europe, rather than a secular or even Christian one.

  • http://bethaniqua.blogspot.com Bethany

    how funny that this published (I think) the same day as this Newsweek article about childless people being happier.
    Does the article take into account longer life expectancies and lower infant mortality?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Wow. I find that Newsweek article almost mind-boggling since my happiness increased exponentially with the birth of my precious daughter.

    But that’s just one anecdote. Thanks for sharing thelink.

  • Dan

    I found the article remarkable for its blindness. It does not even mention what has enabled and fueled the baby bust: abortion, contraception and the ascendency of feminist ideology that denigrates motherhood, children and sacrificial love. I suspect that Shorto is too immersed in the culture that has caused the baby bust to see what that culture is.

    The Newsweek piece is a perfect example of that culture: another beat in the constant drumbeat of intimations that children are the enemy and that affirmation of one’s self is the ultimate good.

  • http://sinaiticus.wordpress.com Ray McCalla

    I found the author’s tone rather dismissive of the role of religious forces on birthrate, and I was waiting for him to explore the Muslim-secularist dynamics. He focused on economic policy, glazing over religion and neglecting cultural forces (which are often shaped by religion) altogether. In this respect, I agree with Dan (lack of discussion about contraception, feminist theology, etc.) But, as the happy father of 4, I’m glad for the coverage!
    Ray McCalla

  • Karen H

    You know, if you dig a little deeper in that Newsweek article, you’ll see that parents in the 1950′s report themselves to be happier than parents in the 1970s onward. What’s the difference between the 1950s and the 1970s? Other factors mentioned in the article are that most families now have both parents work outside of the home, which must add to the stress level and the unhappiness. It’s now more expensive to have kids. So is it really the fact of having kids–regardless of economic conditions of the times–or is it the harder economic times that make having kids more stressful? In the 1950s, you could go a long way on $1 worth of gas.

    I can tell you right now, if I could stay home or work part time instead of having to work full time to help put my kid through college, I’d be a lot happier. I’d be even happier if I could have had another child.

    I don’t think it’s having kids in and of itself that makes for unhappiness. I think it’s that we are working harder and longer for less that makes for added stress and unhappiness.

  • Chris Bolinger

    The Newsweek piece is a perfect example of that culture: another beat in the constant drumbeat of intimations that children are the enemy and that affirmation of one’s self is the ultimate good.

    Well said.

  • Stephen A.

    Dan’s comment is on the mark, listing reasons for the decline in the startling decline in the birthrate both in the US and in Europe: “abortion, contraception and the ascendency of feminist ideology that denigrates motherhood, children and sacrificial love”

    Clearly there’s a religious element to that as well that the Pope’s comment and others touched upon. This is not a bad article from a religion news point of view.

    I’ll add that economics are a huge factor too. Having both husband and wife working, sometimes two jobs each just to survive, is totally new to world history. It’s also extremely destructive to the concept of raising children.

    The loss of high-wage jobs, through “free trade” that sucked most of them into Asia and Mexico, is rarely held accountable as a cause of the plummeting birthrate, let alone the plummeting standard of living in the US.

  • Emilia Liz

    About the childless being happier than parents, there are studies (including one last year in the American Journal of Public Health) showing the exact opposite. So I suppose both the militant childfree and militant pronatalists can shore up students to support their point of view.

  • Julia

    It’s now more expensive to have kids. So is it really the fact of having kids—regardless of economic conditions of the times—or is it the harder economic times that make having kids more stressful?

    In the 50s and still in the early 60s people assumed that babies came with marriage. Expendable income was what was left over after taking care of necessities. Today, children are a deliberate choice. People are used to their stuff and think in terms of what do they have to give up.
    When you marry and have children early, you do not yet have stuff to give up. The nice stuff for yourself came later when the kids were grown.

    When the pill first arrived, it was used to give the married couple a few years to get on their feet and then to space the children. But the mind set has gradually changed over the years and now you hear people talking about needing to have good reasons to have a child. Doh! You’re married – that’s what used to happen before the pill et cetera became all-pervasive. The new baseline is no kids.

    The other thing that has really changed is the goal that virtually all parents now have to move their kids up into the same social class as the kids who go to Harvard and Yale as a matter of course. The constant striving is making for an awful lot of stress in the young parents I see today. People today are also judging each other’s homes by the criteria of the magazines – so what used to be a luxury is now considered required basics.

    We’ve invented a lot of have-to’s that are making life more expensive today. Priorities have changed incredibly since the advent of easy birth control and our succumbing to class-conscious striving and consumerist judgment of each other’s worth.

  • Sarah Webber

    It was a fascinating article but I am also disappointed that it looked so uncritically at the post-modern attitudes towards parenthood. My husband and I are parents to two special needs kids (high functioning autism and sensory integration disorder) which makes life tough now and could argue to others against having children entirely. I must say we don’t plan to have any more because of our current challenges. But, praise God, our children both have very a optimistic prognosis and we expect to leave the special education world behind in 3 or 4 years. But I wonder how my brothers feel about having children when neurological disorders seem to have genetic pieces. I know Mollie has discussed before about how some people expect Downs Syndrome and Cystic Fibrosis to disappear because of pre-natal genetic tests and abortion, and many commentators here were dismayed by those attitudes. If we are a self-centered society, as many believe we are, of course we will only want to have convenient children. I wept last week with the story in the news about the mother with an autistic child who was ejected from an airplane because I’ve been on a plane with an unruly autistic child and, thank God, had much grace extended to me by passengers and crew so that we could fly from here to there. Apparently, no such grace was available last week. Many of us who are parents of all kinds of children know that parenting requires exacting levels of unselfishness. The advantage of Christianity, I think, is that it values and trumpets this kind of unselfishness and devotion to others. I know it is Christ who encourages me and helps me keep perspective, especially on the bad days, and guarantees that my sacrifices are not in vain.

  • Dan

    Seconding Julia’s point, in Italy the shift to childlessness corresponds to a dramatic increase, not decrease, in Italy’s prosperity. Remember when Italy was known for its large, boisterous families? That was back in the day when Italy, and especially southern Italy, was poor. The collapse in the birth rate occured over the 1960s and 1970s — just as Italy was undergoing a dramatic economic boom that brought it unprecedented prosperity. This is not to say economics plays no role — the issue is, why is it allowed to play a larger role just as money becomes less of a problem?

  • Dave

    The story only aims to explore a few theories for why birthrates vary in Europe, but I do wish Shorto had explored why people think it’s problematic.

    It’s right there in the story, at least the version in print in the NYT Magazine. As low birth rate persists, the average age of the population increases, especially as modern medicine extends life expectancy. In a few decades you wind up with many fewer laborers per pensioner in the society. This threatens to bust the bank for the European equivalents of Social Security and Medicare.

    I haven’t read the Newsweek story, but I disagree with the assertion that the NYTMag story was deficient in explaining causes. Doh, does anyone not know that birth control (including abortion) and feminist theory have rearranged the social furniture drastically since the 1960s?

    One area where I found the NYTMag story deficient was that it simply asserted that immigration could not solve the worker:pensioner ratio problem, without going into why it could not. (To the author’s credit, it did mention that in Europe immigration brings religious turmoil.) Perhaps native Europeans would be less troubled by their new young Muslim neighbors if they saw them as the source of their future pensions and medical insurance.

  • Karen H

    The other thing that has really changed is the goal that virtually all parents now have to move their kids up into the same social class as the kids who go to Harvard and Yale as a matter of course. The constant striving is making for an awful lot of stress in the young parents I see today. People today are also judging each other’s homes by the criteria of the magazines – so what used to be a luxury is now considered required basics.

    Good point. So many parents are pushing their kids toward college, regardless of the kids’ talents, that the trades often go begging for employees.

    I guess it’s the idea that you want better for your kids, which has meant you want to push them into an upper social class with more material goods than you had. Which used to be seen as a virtue (the American Dream), but without a moral/spiritual underpinning….

  • Dan

    Dave #15 says: “I haven’t read the Newsweek story, but I disagree with the assertion that the NYTMag story was deficient in explaining causes. Doh, does anyone not know that birth control (including abortion) and feminist theory have rearranged the social furniture drastically since the 1960s?”

    If everyone knows that abortion, contraception and feminist ideology are the causes of the baby bust, why does such a long article about the causes and possible solutions to the baby bust not address those causes? An analysis of a problem that ignores the cause of the problem is not much of an analysis.

  • Dave

    Dan (#17), the article was more about the effects of the European birth rate decline than the causes. The reporter gets just so much ink, and justifiably reserves it for things that the reader doesn’t already know.