Birth Rates Matter

Lyman Stone’s essay offers a knowledgeable and well-reasoned, albeit idiosyncratic, perspective on demographic decline. I find much of what he says persuasive. Most prominently, I agree that the problems of demography should be viewed as problems faced by human beings, rather than abstract considerations of the state. I depart from Stone, however, in some matters of diagnosis and prescription. 

I will focus here on reviewing a few main points and offering gentle rejoinders. Stone covers a great deal of ground, but the key takeaways, as I understand them, are as follows. First, and most centrally, we should understand the term “demographic decline” broadly, looking at individuals failing to achieve their desired demographic outcomes. Instead of worrying about the average number of births per American woman, we should worry about the number of people who would like to marry, have children, or live longer and more productive lives, but who are not achieving this for whatever reason. In particular, Stone would have us pay careful attention to rising mortality among the young, which seems to evidence a particularly bleak form of cultural decline.

As we attend to this central issue, Stone would have us remember three further things. First of all, we should recognize that fertility preferences are the key to understanding fertility outcomes. It is impossible to say offhand how many children a person needs to be happy, so instead of telling women how many children they ought to have, we should help them have the number they say they want. Second, fertility decline is mostly attributable to economic shocks. People have fewer children than they want mainly because they feel financially insecure, or because the social insecurity that follows financial shocks deters them from having children. Third, and finally, Stone believes that preoccupation with demographic decline per se is unhelpful; we should focus our efforts on enhancing social well-being in general, expecting that desirable demographic outcomes will naturally follow. If we instill a sense of security and well-being in adults of childbearing age, we should expect birth rates to rise.

Each of these points is defensible, but there are rejoinders and alternative perspectives worthy of mention.

Empty Cradles, Decaying Playgrounds

Stone regards the very question of “demographic decline” as perplexing, given that the term can be used to describe a wide array of disparate phenomena. Perhaps it reflects my shallower immersion in the topic, but this hasn’t been my experience. When people see the term “demographic decline” in a headline, they expect to read about “fewer babies.” It is widely recognized today that birth rates have fallen precipitously throughout the developed world. 

I propose, therefore, to follow Stone’s recommendation by considering demographic decline as experienced by the people most immediately affected (rather than theorized by wonks and academics), while working with a definition that is narrower in one sense and broader in another. Of the various conceptions listed, I would emphasize one above the others, namely, “the social transformations attendant on rarer youth and more common elderhood.” That is: the population of our nation, and of most developed nations, is aging. Concerns over decline generally seem to hinge on this aspect in one way or another, particularly among non-experts. People that don’t know how to read a population pyramid or discuss a dependency ratio still have an intuitive understanding of the “beanpole family.” Unlike Stone, though, I would offer a more expansive view as to who is most immediately affected. What of the grandmother who had all the children she wanted, but sees her hopes of abundant grandchildren vanishing as her offspring reach midlife? The pastor who laments a graying congregation and emptying pews? The teachers, staff, and volunteers at schools facing closure due to too few enrollees? The population structure of the country has many stakeholders in between the level of the women having (or not having) children, and the future generations grappling with the prospect of Social Security insolvency.

Preferences may help us understand why a woman in 2010, who wants two children, will have fewer than one who wants three. However, that same woman will have fewer than one who wanted two children in 1970. Why is that?

From this perspective, demographic decline should be understood not merely in terms of people getting the outcomes they want (though that too), but also as a reflection of the kind of society we live in. Insofar as it is a problem, it is a social problem. To be sure, from a policy perspective, the individual focus may be fruitful. After all, policies are often geared toward a “carrot-and-stick” maximization of incentives and thus follow an implicitly individualistic logic. But as interesting as it might be to consider why a particular woman does or does not have as many babies as she claims to want, that focus is too narrow as a way of understanding what demographic decline is or why it matters.

Rising premature mortality is indeed an alarming development and even a kind of crisis. Still, Stone’s insistence that “we must begin our conversation” here, and not with the question of falling fertility is puzzling. Life expectancy in the United States rose rapidly and with little interruption from the late 19th century through 2014. Meanwhile, fertility has collapsed relative to its (admittedly aberrationally high) 1960 levels. Suicides and overdose deaths are tragic indeed, and we should certainly be anxious to help prevent them, but that trend simply has little bearing on the shifts in population structure in recent decades, which are what most people have in mind when they discuss demographic decline. These are both important conversations, but they are not the same conversation, nor need one to be a prerequisite for the other.

The Puzzle of Falling Birth Rates 

Stone makes much of the fact that fertility preferences are highly predictive of fertility outcomes at the individual level; women who claim to want a large number of children are likelier to have them. He takes this as evidence that expressed fertility preferences really do reveal something deep and important and argues we should be concerned with helping women have the desired number of children. There is certainly nothing objectionable about that. 

Yet, as David Goldman points out, preferences in themselves tell us little about what demographic decline is, if or why it matters, or what (if anything) we should do about it. Stone unintentionally highlights this point when he notes that fertility preferences have remained relatively stable since 1955 at 2.2 to 2.5 children per woman—a period during which the Total Fertility Rate has ranged from 3.6 to 1.8. Preferences may help us understand why a woman in 2010, who wants two children, will have fewer than one who wants three. However, that same woman will have fewer than one who wanted two children in 1970. Why is that? People worry about demographic decline, in part, because fertility trends across the developed world have changed so markedly in a short space of time, following the same broad pattern in almost every developed country. It only seems reasonable to try to understand these trends and to consider what they mean for the future of the human race. It will be hard to broach that question if we maintain a narrow focus on helping individuals achieve their desired fertility.

In fairness, Stone does make some effort to explain falling birth rates when he attributes declining fertility to economic shocks. This explanation is popular and defensible—but also fiercely contested, as are all general explanations of the fertility decline seen across the developed world. One of the most prominent theories of modern demographic trends, that of the Second Demographic Transition, highlights the role of changing values—declining religiousness and rising prioritization of personal fulfillment over traditional lifestyles and basic material needs—to explain why younger generations are choosing to have fewer children. I use the word “choosing” advisedly, recognizing many may not have such a choice. But among those who do, the question isn’t just when they want to get married or how many children they prefer, but what sacrifices they are willing to make for those things to happen. To understand demographic behaviors, it isn’t enough to know someone’s economic situation—we also need to know something about how they weigh trade-offs. Why does one prospective parent give up career ambitions in order to start a family while another doesn’t? This is where the frustratingly ambiguous yet indispensable factor of “culture” comes in. Goldman ably demonstrates this in his response essay.

Furthermore, in an increasingly globalized postindustrial world, it isn’t obvious why economic shocks would be widely shared, but cultural ones are not. Doesn’t it seem reasonable to expect that a theory that accounts for both will have the most explanatory power? Stone unintentionally alludes to the power of cultural shocks by invoking the effect of social media. If “screen time” has fundamentally altered the way we relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us, this affects younger generations more than older ones around the globe, and this change has meaningfully impacted demographic behaviors—does this not represent a shared cultural shift affecting dispositions toward childbearing? 

Given the nature of current American political cleavages, an explicitly pro-family (as opposed to a pro-autonomous-individual) framing of issues like child allowances and family leave may be a winning strategy in an otherwise-uphill battle.

The point here isn’t that Stone is wrong about the importance of economic factors. There can be good reasons to emphasize them, insofar as they are more amenable to such policy interventions as may be needed. But neglecting the cultural aspect may lead to an insufficient understanding of the causes of demographic decline, and indeed of the nature of the problem itself. For the aforementioned grandmother, pastor, or school staff (in addition to the prospective spouses or parents themselves), a world with fewer children will be felt as a loss of meaning, not only or even primarily of economic well-being. Many people clearly feel that a world with fewer children is a sadder and bleaker one, and that’s not just because they are concerned about their Social Security checks.

Setting Priorities

Stone dismisses preoccupation over demographic decline per se as “fruitless,” and any quest to achieve particular aggregate outcomes as “hubris.” (The latter point reflects a spirit of Hayekian humility with which I have some sympathy.) We should instead focus on improving human flourishing more generally, which will as a natural consequence allow people to attain the demographic outcomes they already want. Build a better society and the babies will come. But while channeling Hayek, Stone has neglected Sowell. Governments have limited means, whether political or economic, to pursue limited goals. Some goods must be prioritized over others. Trade-offs are in order. 

If we make the reasonable assumption that some policies will do more to address the ills of prime-age mortality, later-than-desired marriage, or fewer-than-desired children than others, then it matters whether we view those problems as central or peripheral ones. Stone insists there are non-demographic reasons to support the policies addressing those problems. But there are also non-demographic reasons to oppose them, so why shouldn’t we add the demographic reasons to the ledger? Given the nature of current American political cleavages, an explicitly pro-family (as opposed to a pro-autonomous-individual) framing of issues like child allowances and family leave may be a winning strategy in an otherwise-uphill battle. It is certainly plausible, as Stone argues, that people are happier overall when their fertility preferences are achieved, but it probably will not be clear to everyone that fertility goals ought to be prioritized over other sorts of personal goals: educational and professional goals, lifestyle goals, or even the desire to learn a musical instrument or run a marathon. Why is childbearing more worthy of public support than these other personal preferences?

A responsible conversation about demographics need not replace concern about the human costs of unrealized fertility goals. Rather, it can bolster the argument for improved family policy, by helping policy-makers to appreciate why new citizens are more critically important to the health of society than new marathon-runners or PhD-holders. By proposing a novel, expansive, and person-centered view of what constitutes demographic decline, Stone encourages us to take a step back from the wonky abstractions of TFRs, dependency ratios, and population projections that often characterize demographic conversations. There is merit in this perspective. I agree wholeheartedly that demography is properly a concern of human society, not just the state. But Stone gives short shrift to arguments for why we should be concerned about demographic trends qua demographic trends, preferring instead to fold these concerns into a discussion of human flourishing more generally. If as a matter of policy and culture there is a tension between supporting families vs. autonomous individuals, this perspective seemingly defaults to privileging the latter at the expense of the former. We should consider that an adequate response to demographic decline, whether understood in conventional terms or in Stone’s unorthodox sense, may require a more intentional and targeted approach.