(Yes, I’m back in the bloghouse. I’ve traveled thousands of miles so far this month, and am catching up.)
Over the past two weeks two interesting opinion pieces appeared, calling for families in certain nations to make more, not few, babies. It’s one of those times when I as a futurist can mutter “I knew it! about time!” We might be seeing a trend appear and start to rise.
Let me back up and explain.
Back in the 1960s and 70s many people feared overpopulation, and for good reasons. Human population was rising. Serious research, most notably The Limits To Growth (1972; based on a powerful computer simulation), suggested crises to come, ranging from overcrowding to starvation. Science fiction and popular culture echoed this with novels like Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1968), books like The Population Bomb (1968), and movies like Soylent Green (1973) and Z.P.G. (1972).
(I remember clearly reading the liner notes for a piece of electronic-ish music around 1975. I was about eight, and the album cover back described music for an overpopulated future, when the earth was covered by giant buildings, packed tightly with far, far too many humans. I wish that memory was clear enough to include a title or composer.)
You will notice that during the decades after the population bomb’s warning Earth hasn’t been overrun by teeming hordes devouring everything in their path. Mass starvation hasn’t occurred. One big reason for this welcome development is that overpopulation terrified large numbers of people and many governments to take steps to reduce population growth, most notably China’s one child per family policy. (This is one of those cases where predictions can be productively wrong: by successfully influencing the world to take steps to avoid a bad state of affairs. Futurism often gets dinged unfairly for this, in terms of predictions that didn’t play out. People forget the futuring work is an intervention, with consequences, we hope.)
Another reason, which bears on education, is, well, education. Since the 1970s humans worldwide have received more formal instruction than at any point in our history. As plenty of research has shown, when girls and women have more education, they tend to give birth to fewer children. Schools have helped defuse the population bomb, in other words.
Additionally, and related, women in the wake of feminist progress have been choosing lives that might not focus mostly on child-bearing and -rearing, which is a massive social transformation in itself, obviously. This change includes a reduction in reproduction rates. As one writer pithily sums up, “The population bomb is being diffused. By women. Because they want to.” (I’m pretty sure they meant “defused”)
On top of that, we’ve had progress in public health, including the promulgation of birth control, improved sanitation and water access, improved treatment, and more. (Uneven, yes, but still, overall progress.) Hence our living longer lives, meaning folks over 65 constitute a larger proportion of the population, driving average and median ages up. Hence our having great abilities to control population growth.
There are other reasons in play here, including a possible generational downshift in births, but you get the idea. Overall, that mid-to-late 20th century fear of overpopulation has been addressed well enough to become the staple of a new round of popular culture about people under-reproducing themselves, in films like Idiocracy (2006). Silicon Valley can emit a food-thing called Soylent without it being a sick joke, at least in terms of overpopulation concerns.
Beyond fiction and the Valley, a growing number of developed nations worry about underpopulation as their inhabitants age, giving rise to concerns about imbalances between younger workers and older pensioners/retirees, which have implications for taxes, labor economics, pensions, and many other issues. (This plays a role in immigration debates.) . China has changed its one child policy to allow, and even encourage, families to have two children each. It’s not uncommon to speak of the opposite of a baby boom, a baby bust.
Accordingly, for several years I’ve been watching for signs of someone calling for people to have more children.
(NB: I am not echoing such a call, in case you’re wondering. I am observing it as a cultural development with potential power to shape the future.)
Some on the cultural right have been urging people to have more children for some time. The Quiverfull movement, for example, celebrates families with oodles of kids. These voices have been clear, but culturally very marginal. Instead, I’ve been waiting to see them, or rather, their ideas, go mainstream.
Cue American politician and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who was a baby when Limits to Growth Appeared, and a two-year-old when Soylent Green appeared. He just published a high profile editorial calling for Americans to have more children.
Well, I should be more precise. Rubio is specifically calling for tax breaks to support families in their reproductive capacity:
Note that in order to frame this call he quietly sets up an underpopulation crisis. First, it’s a baby gap:
As the economist Lyman Stone has shown, by 2012, the average number of children American women intended to have was 2.37, and the total fertility rate was 1.88 — a gap of about 0.5 children on average. Since the 1960s, there has been a consistent gap between intended and total fertility, even as the number of children American women desire to have and the total birthrate have declined over time. [link in original]
He writes “gap” twice, repeating that negative, an opposing it to “women[‘s] desire”. Subtle.
Next, Rubio positions this is terms of vigor:
We simply cannot have a strong nation without strong families, and working Americans face a challenge in the cost of raising children that threatens the health and vitality of our country.
“strong”, “strong”, “health”, “vitality” – the baby gap saps America’s strength. Addressing it is manly, and also womanly (see above). This is carefully crafted rhetoric.
It’s also classically Republican. Note the two words looming largest in the editorial:
“tax” and “children”: again, this is carefully messaged. Immigration appears, but only once, as a matter of autobiography and thereby personal virtue; he neither calls for more immigrants as a matter of national policy nor recommends we shut down the numbers of new Americans. Rubio seems to be treading delicately around Trump, neither supporting the president’s notoriously anti-immigrant stance nor opposing it openly. The senator even makes a tentative move towards the end towards populism, with a smack at elites, possibly teasing out a segment of the Republican base. Rubio doesn’t call for federally funded programs, of course, since he’s to the right of that kind of thing.
Rubio is a major political figure in the United States. He has a decent shot at becoming president, being from a major swing state (Florida), a member of the fastest-growing and second-largest ethnicity (Hispanic), and not looking hideously ugly (essential for tv politics). In other words, this isn’t a marginal thought balloon. Let’s see if he keeps on with this theme, or if other Republicans pick it up.
Smith frames underpopulation as a macroeconomic challenge, rather than a microeconomic problem for families:
[C]ountries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea probably can’t import enough people to cancel out aging without risking a xenophobic backlash. Also, these countries are in a much worse situation in terms of fertility — Japan’s rate is at 1.46, Germany’s at 1.5 and South Korea’s at a startlingly low 1.24. Without more babies, these countries’ economies are in danger.
If this is a macro problem, it requires a large scale solution, and one national governments should play a role in supplying. “How can the government raise fertility?” Smith asks, and tours a number of responses, before settling on two he prefers: “child-care subsidies and paid-parental leave.”
This is a different view from Rubio’s. Unlike the Florida senator’s tax breaks, the Bloomberg columnist’s solution involves more government spending. Smith is also disinterested in writing autobiographically, or appealing to a sense of national virility. Note that Smith resists gendering parenting, referring to it in gender neutral terms.
There are some commonalities. Like Rubio, Smith doesn’t see immigration as playing a role. He finds it “potentially destabilizing”. Smith also thinks his policies will help encourage baby-making because of practical reasons; he names opportunity cost.
As far as I can tell, Smith isn’t a liberal, progressive, or Democratic activist, but I can imagine people adhering to those politics using his argument. Increasing or introducing child-care subsidies and paid paternal leave is congruent with the party of FDR and LBJ, and might resonate with millennials who backed Bernie Sanders and lack Cold War anti-socialism immersion. The avoidance of immigration could appeal to Democrats burned by the catastrophic failure of that party’s pro-immigration stance in 2016.
To be fair, this desire for more reproduction is by no means universally shared. Some contemporary voices worry about overpopulation not for its own sake, but instead because of the impact of a growing population on a planetary ecosystem threatened by climate change. One observer considers that we
might eventually admit that having many children is wrong, or at least morally suspect, for standard environmental reasons: Having a child imposes high emissions on the world, while the parents get the benefit. So like with any high-cost luxury, we should limit our indulgence.
And some do worry about overpopulation, as total human numbers do continue to grow, just not nearly as sharply as feared. We stand not just on Zanzibar (Brunner was right about that), but also at around 7.5 billion now, a record number. Yet that growth is sharply divided, happening mostly in the developing world. The developed world continues to head not towards Children of Men territory, but perhaps halfway there.
Let me leave you with two divisions, then.
First, the gap between OECD and developing nations. We are heading towards nations of olds opposed to nations rich in children. Think about what this means for migration, economics… and education. For the latter, will developed world universities shift their demographic targets to serve the full range of human ages, or will they decide to target the developing world for 18-year-olds?
Second, the divide within one particular developed nation. On the one hand, the possible emergence of a pro-childbirth politics calling on Americans to have more kids, using whichever policy tools best fit politically. On the other, a politics resisting this call, either because of climate change fears, gender politics reasons (men aren’t going to be bearing these babies, without serious biological and cultural changes), or libertarian belief (who is the government/nation/business to tell people what to do with their reproductive systems?). It will be interesting to see how this plays out in terms of parties, generations, and regions.