The Baby Bust: Our National Reproductive System Is Broken
Published on: October 21, 2013
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  • rheddles

    While the elderly scarf up the country’s debt capacity to pay for Medicare and its younger, uglier sibling Obamacare at the cost of higher taxes and premiums for the tenuously employed young, is it any wonder those responsible enough to marry question the wisdom of bringing a $500,000 cost stream into the world.

    Ilya Somin talks about voting with feet being more important than voting with ballots. but voting with (or without) seed is most important. This is a vote of no confidence by the millenial generation.

  • qet

    Via Meadia appears to be casting the demographic problem as solely a fiscal problem: how are we going to pay pensions and other entitlements when there are too few workers with wages that will sustain the required level of taxation? Seeing demographics solely as a fiscal function invites the response that the problem can be solved by purely fiscal means (i.e., higher levels of tax on “the rich”). The field for discussion of the problem then remains confined within the narrow, antiseptic and highly abstract bounds of finance and tax policy, allowing people to pretend that there are not deeper cultural causes and consequences. I said before in another comment that I have never known anyone to get or stay married, or to have or not have children, based on tax credits (though I suppose I must acknowledge the story of that rich guy who adopted his girlfriend in order to avoid estate (I think) taxes). To solve the demographic problem we are going to have to shift the discussion off of the finance plane and onto a cultural/political plane, which action could prove worse than fruitless owing to the coherence crisis Via Meadia mentioned in the Big Five. Seems to me that solving the coherence crisis is a condition precedent to solving the demographic crisis.

    • Kavanna

      Simple problem: there aren’t enough “rich.” This is another imaginary solution.

    • I agree, the heart of the issue is that our society has turned deeply negative and miserable. With an unhappy society, we get the very real thought that we are dooming any kids that we have to a miserable life. Until and unless that changes, I think dooming a child to a miserable life by creating him is highly irresponsible.

      What could break this horrible cycle we have created?

  • Anthony

    WRM, the commentary views of your readers, male and female, in most reproductive years would be insightful relative to essay’s theme and ideas.

    • Nick Bidler

      1. got a history degree and ain’t got no job,
      2. living with parents is a turn-off,
      3. if i got married, as a male, my best-case scenario is ‘break even,’
      4. being in california exacerbates all problems except weather
      5. based on anecdotal evidence, it is verboten for women to want to actually be a stay-at-home mother

      • Anthony

        Thanks, Nick.

      • lhfry

        I do see in my daughter and daughter in law (30s) 1 child each, guilt that they might want to stay at home and raise their own children. One does, one doesn’t. Ditto their friends. Few young women view child raising as an important activity and also feel that they should be contributing financially to the family project.
        I keep saying, as in my own life, I stayed home for 12 years with two kids and enjoyed it immensely. Lucky we could afford it, though of course we had less than those who chose otherwise. Following that period, I had a much more satisfying career than I had before I had kids. You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.

        • Kavanna

          The incredible expense of raising children these days in the developed world is surely part of the problem.
          The talk of “sustainability” is a smoke screen that hides this reality.

        • Anonymous This Time

          Someone hired you after 12 years off, and then you had a career, not a mere job?
          You must be very white. Nobody in my family could pull something like that off.

    • Yisroel Markov

      I’m 45, have six children, and am married to their mother. My oldest is 20 and got married a year ago. My youngest is 7. I do realize that my family is unusual these days. By us, it’s a religious culture that values children higher than a comfortable lifestyle.

      • Anthony

        God Bless you, Yisroel. You yet have much work to do; and thanks.

  • lukelea

    In the case of the Japanese at least it has been argued that they have the situation well in hand. I hadn’t seen this analysis before (written by a journalist whose wife is Japanese btw). WRM and his minions and readers should at least take note.

    • You mean some of Mead’s readers get to be minions? Where do I go to sign up?

    • Kavanna

      They can’t possibly have it in hand. Who is going to pay off the massive debts the Japanese have run up?
      Japan’s population is actually shrinking, and its government is destined to go bankrupt in the not-too-distant future. In Europe, and in certain “blue” states here, that future has already arrived.

  • wigwag

    Unfortunately biology doesn’t always cooperate with evolving social trends: even more unfortunately, biology always wins.

    In 1950 on average women married at the age of 20 years and six months and men married at 23. In 1975, the average age at which women married was 21 and the average age for men was still 23. In 2012, the average age for first marriages went up sharply for both men and women; for women it was 27 and for men, 29.

    None of this is good for fecundity; fertility rates drop sharply between the ages of 20 and 30. There are many reasons for this, not the least being that sperm motility (ability to move to penetrate the egg) declines.

    A big problem that Professor Mead doesn’t allude to in this post is that the later women wait to become pregnant, the more likely it is that their offspring will be unhealthy. Rates of childhood disorders as diverse as asthma and autism are skyrocketing. There is reasonably compelling preliminary data that increasing paternal age is a major risk factor for these disorders and for others including dyslexia and ADHD.

    Unless the current social trends abate, the incidence of these childhood disorders will only get worse.

    Obviously, the costs associated with treating these conditions are very large.

    • Kavanna

      Some of these risks do rise with parental age, but it’s more subtle than that.

      If the parents have the genetic risk factors to begin with, the risks are already there when they’re 20-something. The risk starts out higher and just goes up with age.

      If the risk isn’t there to begin with, age is largely irrelevant. Risks like these start out much lower and rise only slightly with age.

      That’s why prospective parents should get genetic screening.

      • wigwag

        Your argument is only partially true. Many of the conditions that affect these infants are idiopathic; there is no known cause and certainly no genetic associations have been discovered. In addition, many of these disorders are polygenic and multifactorial. That is to say genetic variants may play a role but the presence of those variants is not, in and of themselves enough to confer significant risk.

        In some disorders where genes appear to play a role, parental age is relevant. This tends to be particularly true for neurological disorders like autism, language delay and ADHD. In the cases of these conditions, its paternal age that seems most pertinent.

        All of this is far from settled though. Most of the evidence is preliminary. The jury is still out.

  • jeburke

    I’m not sure why viewing the fertility crisis as the result of “cultural decay” is a cliche. What else could be the cause besides changes in the culture (whether “decay” or not aside)? I’d love to hear what WRM thinks is the cause.

    • Kavanna

      Economics, unless your use of “culture” is broad enough to encompass economics. The Millennials can’t find enough jobs, they are facing high cost for higher ed and living in general, and raising a child is very expensive these days. But it’s by no means an American story only. Europe is worse, and Japan much worse.

  • Anthony

    Via Meadia readers will enjoy this article, entitled “Why have young people in japan stopped having sex.”

    “It’s too troublesome,” says Kishino, when I ask why he’s not interested in having a girlfriend. “I don’t earn a huge salary to go on dates and Idon’t want the responsibility of a woman hoping it might lead to marriage.” Japan’s media, which has a name for every social kink, refersto men like Kishino as “herbivores” or soshoku danshi (literally, “grass-eating men”). Kishino says he doesn’t mind the label because it’s become so commonplace. He defines it as “a heterosexual man for whom relationships and sex are unimportant.”

    • Anthony

      Anthony, based on your general comments on Via Meadia, I presume you are of prime reproductive age; what are your views and those of peers relative to WRM’s essay theme.

  • Jane the Actuary

    So here’s the thing: the birth rate is not a metric; there’s so much going on.
    Among many middle-class women (and men), who a generation ago would have seen having children as a natural part of life’s progression, it’s now a choice that one makes, or doesn’t make, and begins to feel as optional as whether one takes up woodworking as a hobby. But, more than that, it’s an inconvenience — all the more so for city-dwellers living a “green” and “sustainable” lifestyle. While in some countries, low birth rate are due to a deem despair about the future, in other cases, this isn’t a matter of pessimism, but just a changed norm and set of preferences.

    For poor women in America, on the other hand, there’s no great sacrifice in having children; motherhood is still seen as a fulfilling life. I’m currently working through a compelling book on the topic:

    • rheddles

      Jane is right. All the wrong people are having children for all the wrong reasons.

      • Anonymous This Time

        You need to take a closer look at some of the “right” people.

  • Andrew Allison

    I submit that “Virtually all Americans understand at this point that the crises in our public and private pension systems and in old age programs like Medicare are largely a result of the baby bust. Our entitlement programs were based on the assumption that each generation would be larger than the last.” is completely mistaken. I think that very few Americans understand that there’s a crisis, let alone it’s causes.
    The crises in our public and private pension systems are unrelated, to each other and to that in old age programs. The latter is due at least as much to increased longevity as to the baby bust. When Social Security was introduced, only 54% of males who reached the age of 21 could expect to live to age 65, and collect Social Security benefits for almost 13 years. Today, about 75% of men reach the age of 65 and their life expectancy thereafter is about 16 years. In other words, the actuarial assumptions are deeply flawed (retirement age must increase and/or benefits decrease for the system to remain solvent). The fact that 53% retire before reaching full retirement age is a whole other can of worms. The Medicare issue is similar: increased longevity brings increased heath problems and costs. A baby boom, even if achievable, won’t solve these problems.

  • Pete

    The root of the baby bust is probably due in significant part to a rise of secularism in America and a decline of Christianity in the public square and the culture in general. This is surely the case in Europe.

  • Corlyss

    I won’t believe any stats on poverty, income inequality, and their alleged growth until someone comes up with a metric that includes the transfer payments going to poor people.

    • Kavanna

      The stats usually do NOT include transfers, so the underlying trend is clear. But the numbers for transfers is available and not encouraging.

      • Corlyss

        I think they’re concealing them from the public deliberately. They need to paint a bleak picture to justify higher taxes which will not improve the poor, since it’s their bad habits that keep them in thrall to the Dems. Another area where the media lets us down.

        • Kavanna

          Actually, the numbers of people moving from the labor force to dependency has been systematically obfuscated by the administration. They don’t want voters to see plainly how bad the labor market is. Of course, the standard unemployment rate doesn’t count those people — it all looks better than it really is.

          • Corlyss

            No surprise there. Now that we know the Census bureau lied to keep U3 at an acceptable level, I’ve stopped believing in their neutrality and I’ve gotten stroppy with the hapless Census worker who showed up at my door to do follow up interviews. I’ll be da*ned if she gets another interview out of me.

            BTW Kav, you’re very behind in the conversations. I hope everything is okay and you just got bored with us.

  • Mark Michael

    If we insist on sticking with our current pay-as-you-go defined-benefit Social Security and Medicare systems, then raising the retirement age from the current 66 (it’s being raised to 67 slowly) to over 70 and then indexing it to life expectancy is the only solution left. That assumes our political system forecloses other more extensive options. It may be fun to cast that in apocalyptic, melodramatic terms, but is it justified?

    As a practical matter, fewer and fewer jobs, professions are physically demanding as they were 50 or 75 years ago. Office work, even factory work running highly-automated machinery, does not wear out the joints – knees, ankles, back – like farm work, factory work, transportation jobs – did in the past. So people lots of people can work to 70 or 75. Nowadays, people keep working past 80. Those that cannot, can be supported by a materially-richer society without a lot of trouble.

    NOW, having said that, I strongly believe a society is spiritually, culturally, educationally better off with less government-run elements in society and more private, voluntary-run aspects of society and the economy. This theme has been beaten to death in the comments at ViaMeadia and I won’t repeat the outlines of a more laissez-faire, limited-government economy in this comment any further.

  • I’m confused: excepting the financial crisis/recession/pseudo-recovery, it looks to me like US fertility has been higher in the recent past since it bottomed out in 1977. I can certainly understand why fertility has plummeted in the last 5 years, but that hardly adds up to a trend. Why, after more than 30 years, is this suddenly an urgent issue?

    • Curt

      TRM: As with so much in demographics, you have to account for a generation of delay. At first, a lower birth rate was effectively a net plus to the economy, as children are not productive. But now, those “missing” children from the 70s and 80s would be hitting their productive years, helping to generate the wealth to pay for our elderly. They’re not here…

      • So you’re saying that we should have been panicking back in the 80’s, but better late than never? Horses, barn-doors, and the timing of their closing appear to be an issue here.

        It all depends on what happens with the chronic joblessness. I’m a pessimist on this–I think automation is about to fundamentally transform our ideas of work and the welfare state. If things continue to look as bleak as they are right now, I don’t see my kids–all born in the 80’s–having scads of children and subjecting them to the same economic wasteland. And my desire more more than one grandchild notwithstanding, I’m not sure that we need vast new numbers of workers for an economy that will run just fine on one tenth the labor of the current one.

    • Kavanna

      To maintain the current private and public systems of retirement and health costs, there needs to be somewhere between 2-1/2 and 3 children per woman. I did the calculation myself a few years ago and have seen a number of other, similar estimates.
      We avoided the problem in the 80s and 90s because of the momentum of the late Boomers and GenX’er’s, as well as women entering the work force. Women are now leaving (for a variety of reasons), and the earlier demographic momentum is gone.
      (I believe the bottom of birth rates in the US was in 1940. The 1977 bottom was a more recent, “higher low.”)

      • Well, that’s clearly not going to happen. It’s even unlikely that you could generate that kind of population growth with liberalized immigration. And even if you did, you’d have to keep increasing population growth in the face of longer and longer expected lifespans.

        So what’s Plan B? We all know what it is. We have to reduce entitlement spending to the point where it’s affordable with achievable population growth and the productivity increases that provide essential goods and services for less cost.

        • Kavanna

          Of course. And private pensions will be affected too. With slowing population growth, where do the relatively older and wealthier put their savings, if the growth of investment and consumption is also slowing? Was this not an element in the credit bubble that started in the 90s and ended in 2008? Too much savings chasing too few opportunities -?

    • Anonymous This Time

      They don’t like who is having the babies now.

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