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Although many factors have led us to this stage, Longman notes that a complex economic dynamic is the prime factor in lowering fertility rates. In all countries, as people move to urban areas in which children offer no economic reward to the family, and as women acquire access to education, economic opportunities and contraception, the opportunity costs of childbearing continue to rise.
Indeed the absolute costs of raising children in Western countries have grown astronomically as well. For example, Longman notes that in the United States, the cost of raising a middle-class child born this year through age 18, according to the Department of Agriculture, exceeds $200,000 — not factoring in the cost of higher education. And the cost in forgone wages, even for those families in the middle of the middle class, can easily run in excess of $1 million.
Longman shows that these costs stem from the tendency of economic development toward a more education-intensive economy. Nowadays children often remain economically dependent on their parents well into their own childbearing years because it takes longer to develop a worker — such development includes not only skills, credentials and education, but also the social understanding and personal maturity necessary for success in a complex, networked economy. Therefore by the time many couples can afford children, they must settle for fewer than they otherwise would have had.
AND THEN THE AGING begins. The initial difficulties are obvious ones. Once a society begins turning out more retirees than workers, there is a severe strain on both private and public pension funds. In Germany, for example, public spending on pensions is expected to increase from an already overwhelming 10.3 percent of GDP to 15.4 percent by 2040.
Some have touted the “longevity revolution” as one of the answers to the modern population dilemma, with workers expected to live longer, healthier and therefore more productive lives. But Longman notes that, due to lifestyle factors, life expectancy among aging Americans is actually decreasing in many categories. We may be at or near the end of the line on the longevity revolution, as diseases related to Western lifestyle — such as cancers and heart attacks induced by smoking and obesity — seem at this point likely to all but wipe out any future gains made by modern medicine. And as Western lifestyles spread throughout the developing world, we can expect more of the same on a global scale.
Many argue that immigration is the cure to population ills and that, by allowing immigrants from poorer regions of the world access to the opportunities of the West, everyone’s problems could be solved. Throughout much of American history, immigrants have indeed renewed the nation with their vitality. However, with population contractions on the horizon for developing countries like Mexico, and because the United States is already competing with Europe for immigrants from other parts of the world such as north Africa, this seems at best a tenuous solution to the problem close at hand.
According to Longman, some biologists now speculate that human beings have engineered a self-destructive environment in which the “fittest” members of the species have an incentive to produce few or no children. He notes one primary exception to this rule — studies have found that there is a strong correlation between religious conviction and fertility. In the United States, 47 percent of people who consider themselves religious say that the ideal family size is three or more children, as compared to only 27 percent of those who are not religious.
But secular societies have also recognized the dangers of the decline and are attempting to head it off. Last month in Australia — which currently averages a record low for that country of 1.75 births per woman — various officials urged couples to begin having larger families. Head of the national treasury Peter Costello dangled a $3,000 maternity bonus in front of potential parents and told them, “You should have one for the father, one for the mother and one for the country.” He added for good measure, “Go home tonight and do it for your country.”
Longman recommends that secular societies come up with better ways of educating young adults and integrating them into the work force, thereby reducing tensions between work and procreation. He advocates education as a lifetime pursuit, more opportunities for part-time employment, and full health and pension benefits for such work.
He also makes the bold recommendation that governments offer a reprieve to parents on paying into social security systems. He argues that, in raising children, parents already contribute to these systems in the form of human capital.
All these suggestions are worthy of consideration from policy makers. But ultimately, only a culture that values families and encourages childbearing, and only individuals who believe these are not only worthwhile but essential pursuits, can correct the demographic decline we are about to enter.
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