Where Have All the (European) Babies Gone?

This past weekend, the New York Times magazine featured a startling piece called, simply, “No Babies?” by writer Russell Shorto. The very long and engrossing article spans ten pages (in a web sense) and includes the following notable quotations and ideas.

The plummeting global birthrate–

“[A]round the world, even in developing countries, birthrates have plummeted — from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today — as populations have shifted from rural areas to cities and people have adopted urban lifestyles, and the drop has perhaps lessened the urgency of the overpopulation cry.”

Some said in the 1980s that the world was vastly and dangerously overpopulated. What the above comment notes, in typical understated highbrow fasion, is that this thesis was wrong on a massive scale. In fact, it would be fascinating to study this thesis to see if it had a discernable effect on the desiccated global birthrate. I would guess that it might have. I would further guess that it was used to enfranchise the selfish lifestyles of (perhaps) millions of people around the world in encouraging them, for the first time in trans-cultural history, to see children as a curse, not a blessing. If this is so, what bitter fruit this ideology has reaped.

The scale of this disastrous trend–

“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.”

Again, in layman’s terms, this translates to “cultural cataclysm.” In other words, Europe is dying before our eyes. We are literally watching the slow, agonizing death of much of the Western world.

The dangers this trend poses–

The spiritual concerns aside, though, the main threats to Europe are economic. Alongside birthrate, the other operative factor in the economic equation is lifespan. People everywhere are living longer than ever, and lifespan is continuing to increase beyond what was once considered a natural limit.

Here the writer, Shorto, shows his worldview undergarments, so to speak. The chief cause and effect here involves economic rather than spiritual concerns. This is a classic move of leftist thought–to briefly acknowledge the spiritual dimension of life and then move hurriedly on to the really important stuff, the financial matters that truly drive life. Well, this is in reality a pretty bad idea, in the end. Why do people make economic decisions? Shorto makes much of the changing workplace in his article, and he attempts to argue that two-income families actually help birthrates to rise in many countries, over against the traditional logic that one-income families produce relatively more children. Why, though, do people choose to make the decisions they do? Do not spiritual concerns factor in heavily on this question? What good does it do Shorto and the rest of us to ignore the philosophical tides of nihilism and epicureanism that swept over Europe in the second half of the twentieth century? He ends up looking a bit silly for his refusal to take spirituality seriously, given the massive cultural shifts in twentieth-century European philosophical and religious thought.

On this quirky matter that two-income homes are actually better for birthrates, Shorto asserts that “even conservatives like Willetts acknowledge that societies that support working couples have higher birthrates than those in which mothers are housewives.” He goes on to conclude rather triumphantly that “The old conservative argument — that a traditional, working-husband-and-stay-at-home-wife family structure produces a healthy, growing population — doesn’t apply, either in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world today.” Hold your horses. It may well be that in certain countries that feature more two-income families, more children are birthed. But this does not answer all questions. For example, women in more egalitarian countries may have more babies than women in other societies merely because they are paid to do so. It may also be true that they have more babies because their husbands invest more in childcare, as Shorto suggests. But this discussion masks a larger point–women in Europe are not having babies, regardless of the structure of the home. There clearly is no major birthrate increase in more egalitarian countries. Furthermore, when the traditional model is itself suffused with selfishness in many quarters, as we can see, women do not want to have children, though they may be at home in the traditional manner.

Beyond this, much of the U. S., which Shorto cites as a “sparkling exception” to this trend, adheres to a decidedly traditional worldview. It’s conservatives, in many cases, not liberals, who are having babies. This would seem to directly contradict one of the central assertions of this article.

The final word on the matter–

“When European women age 18 to 34 were asked in another study to state their ideal number of children, 16.6 percent of those in Germany and 12.6 percent in Austria answered “none.””

This is a frightening situation, indicative of a wider, world-spanning movement that sees children as a curse. Though Shorto strongly concludes that America has fallen under no such spell, one wonders whether his research is accurate. All around us, people want to live for themselves, and not for their families, or on a much broader level, their societies. They want to do what they wish to do, not what is right and good to do as defined by tradition and, I would argue, biblically informed tradition. So many young people want nothing more than to chase their dreams and live narcissistic lives of self-indulgence. Of course, there are some out there who desperately want to have children but cannot for a variety of reasons (illness, singleness, etc.), but these people are more generally the exception, it seems.

Having a child is almost the fundamental good of the family (which is itself nearly the fundamental good of existence!). It is not, in the Bible, a mere option, one of a number of fun things to do if one wants. It is what married people do (when they can). Children are a blessing from the Lord (Psalm 127). Our culture and many others across the world believe the opposite, giving Christians the opportunity to demonstrate that we do not live for ourselves, first and foremost. We do not live to gratify our passing fancies. We live to do something much larger than this, to build something far greater than ourselves, to involve ourselves in the awesome task of physically and spiritually shaping the destiny of a living being we create, and of doing this not only for ourselves, but for our societies, and far, far beyond this, for our God. Having children, in the end, is not a box to check on a laundry list of entertainments; it is an act of worship that enters us into a work almost too great to comprehend and too awesome to carry out.

  • Al

    I knew the world birthrate was low, but had not realized the extent of the problem.

    I wonder if this might be related to the concept from Revelation of Satan knowing that his time is short, if he, by lowering the birthrate through such spiritual issues as you mentioned, thinks he is gaining more time before he is cast into the lake of fire? Just a thought.

    Al

  • Phil

    I’m not sure you draw the right conclusions from changing demographics. Firstly, the world’s population will continue to grow massively simply because people are living longer even with a falling birth rate. We’re still adding about 200,000 people per day to the planet.

    Secondly, population shrink in some countries doesn’t mean culture death, it means culture adaption. We’re not watching Europe die but Europe change.

    I’d be surprised if this wasn’t reflected in some portions of US society.

    Lastly, not having LOTS of children is not necessarily selfish. As we’ve distanced ourselves from the means of growing our own food and created increasingly expensive societies, the economic cost (which isn’t unimportant) rises.

    While we hope Christian families would glorify God, for most people when they look at our families I’m not sure we convince them to have more children.


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