Industrialization and Low Birth Rates

21 January 2010

Thursday


HDI map

The BBC recently carried the story South Koreans told to go home and make babies, which is yet another story of coming demographic collapse. Similar stories have come out of Japan, Italy, and Russia. There was a Time magazine story about Japan that showed a baby on the cover marked “limited edition.”

Even in the US, where population continues to grow due to a combination of immigration and high birth rates among some sectors of the population, an aging population is already cause for financial concern: the number of workers contributing to the Social Security for each retiree has been declining and continues to decline. There comes a point at which such schemes can no longer be sustained and taxes must be dramatically raised or benefits dramatically cut. The dreaded inverted population pyramid cannot sustain even the most responsibly administered pyramid scheme.

Global Fertility Rates

Global Fertility Rates

How are we to explain the connection between industrialization and low birth rates? Many sociological studies have been devoted to the question, and many answers to the riddle have been proposed.

Of course, there is no single correct answer. An advanced industrialized society is like what ecologists call a climax ecosystem: a complicated net of interconnecting relationships in which a change in any part can affect the whole, and changes to the whole affect all the parts in turn. Among the many causes that could be identified we might name the following:

The expense of raising and educating a child in an industrialized society

Improved health from technological medicine means that people live longer, stay healthier longer, and thus remain fertile into later years, which creates an incentive to delay child bearing, by which time any number of other circumstances can interrupt childbearing

Prior to the widespread recognition of civil rights for women, women often had no outlet for achievement or creativity other than children; with the availability of careers and alternatives for women, many women choose careers over families

Lack of financial incentives to have children

In some countries, indirect financial penalties follow from having children

A growing de facto naturalism in advanced industrialized societies implicitly encourages people to think in terms of naturalistic life goals such as self-fulfillment, which can take the form of having children, but in an advanced society that offers many options to individuals, child-rearing must compete with attractive alternatives

Lack of a clear vision (right or wrong) of the direction in which the world is headed; pessimism about the future

An increasing willingness to talk openly about abuse within families, unhappy childhoods, and dysfunctional families, leading to a realization of how easily raising children can go disastrously wrong

The provision of social services in advanced societies means that people are less reliant upon children for support in their later years; in poor agricultural societies, the dependency of the aged upon their children can be absolute

In pre-industrialized societies there is little to do and little in the way of stimulation; couples may choose to have children simply because this is among the few opportunities (perhaps the only opportunity) available to them other than merely laboring to stay alive.

In naming particular contributing factors we must not be understood to be emphasizing these, or suggesting that they are definitive or have special prominence. These are simply a few suggestions that occur to one thinking over the question, and, as noted above, all these factors, and many others as well, come together in a complex system. We could not change any one of the factors named above, or any other factor anyone else might name, and suddenly change the low birth rates in industrialized society. Any social factor we might name is integral to that society, so that to bring about significant change we would have to effect significant change to the society.

When it comes to sociological trends like low birth rates in industrialized societies, all we can do is observe and record. The trend is so pervasive and so much larger than any one factor that we cannot “explain” it in any robust sense of the term “explain.” To attempt to explain would be to “explain away” and to miss the point. Science often comes to this point. For example, science made a significant advance when Newton forswore any attempt to explain gravity (“I make no hypotheses,” he famously said), and instead described the action of gravity minutely and provided a means to calculate its effects.

I find this to be very similar to the case for the free market and its ability to create wealth, jobs, and prosperity. There is a peculiar human weakness that wants an explanation, wants a proof, a deductive proof and the certainty that comes with mathematical demonstration; where this desire holds sway, people are not content with mere statistical correlations. And so people are very vulnerable to sophistical arguments about economics; hence the popularity of Marxism and other forms of voodoo economics, which seem to prove their point, instead of merely pointing to the world and saying, “See, that’s what happens.” And yet, this is all we can do. We know that there is a consistent statistical correlation between free markets and prosperity and job creation. We cannot prove it, but we can show it. If someone demands proof, then they must get it elsewhere, and they will probably get a fallacy.

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