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Suffer the Little Children

Suffer the Little Children

Paul Bickley examines ‘the liberal case for pronatalism’ in the wake of recent reporting on population decline. 27/09/2021

PD James’ novel The Children of Men poses the question what would happen to humanity if we stopped being able to have children. People would give up on democratic politics – authoritarianism would creep in.  The elderly would be provided with the means to euthanize themselves rather than access to old–age care, that being a luxury only available for the elite. Migrant workers would be lured to the country and exploited, and the state would suddenly become interested in every individual’s fertility.  

 As it happens, the novel is set in 2021.  

 The premise is a brilliant one, focusing our attention on the fact that much of what we consider ordinary life assumes the continuity of humanity in general, and of our own children in particular. The premise, however, was not a prophecy. The problem we now actually face is somewhat different: instead of ‘what happens to societies when people can’t have children’, the question is ‘what happens when people stop wanting children’?  

 An exaggeration? Yes. An absurd exaggeration? No. A recent study in The Lancet predicts that global population will peak at just shy of 10 billion in 2064 (though the UN’s projections differ). By 2100, The Lancet study predicts that the global population is likely have fallen back by around a billion.  

 As we approach COP26 talks on climate change, many readers will no–doubt think that it would be a good thing for fewer human beings to be taxing scarce global resources. While understandable, such sentiments don’t really factor the social, cultural and economic fall–out of population decline. Some countries are already seeing the first glimpses of likely dramatic future declines. Spain is forecast to lose 50% of its population by 2100. South Korea’s population declined for the first time in its history in 2020, and projections there look genuinely apocalyptic. Two things – that the global population is unsustainably high, and that particular regions/nations are about to endure de–population that is somewhere between painful and catastrophic – can be true at the same time. In 100 years, humanity may be much smaller and older than it is now. 

 So well done to the Social Market Foundation for publishing Baby bust and baby boom: Examining the liberal case for pronatalism, which explores our local version of this global issue. The authors report ONS data on a declining ‘total fertility rate’ (TFR) – i.e. the number of children born to each woman if she were to live to the end of her child–bearing years, and bear an average number of children according to current age specific rates. In 2020 the TFR for the UK as a whole stood at 1.58, well below the ‘replacement rate’ of 2.1 (where we have enough children to maintain a stable population, without factoring net migration).

 The current TFR in Scotland is at 1.29. And while, including migration and longer life–expectancy, the UK’s population is likely to continue to grow until the 2060s, the authors of the report foresee problems in sustaining public services as the number of pensioners relative to the number of workers increases: “at present there are a little under three over 65s for every ten workers, but by the middle of the next decade that ratio will rise to 3.5, and by the 2060s the number will be closing in on four”. In spite of the vexed politics of migration, even these ratios depend on significant numbers of working age people coming to the UK from overseas. As the authors rightly note, if the population is declining across the world then attracting currently–vilified ‘economic migrants’ might be easier said than done. 

 This is therefore an important report, raising issues which policy makers need to be thinking harder about. Not unlike the climate change agenda, we need to muster the will and wit now to do something to address a problem that will only be fully visible in decades.  

 It is, however, interesting what the report does not do. In exploring the ‘liberal case for pronatalism’ (that is, government policies that support those who want to have children to do so), it doesn’t pause to ask why people are having few children. Rather, it assumes that the reasons are purely economic, and therefore proposes more generous policies on parental leave, childcare, and direct payments or tax incentives. Evidence suggests that the effect of pro–natalist policies in other countries only have a limited effect. To state the obvious (though it seems to have been missed here) birth rates decline as countries become wealthier. Why?  

 The report accepts that there are deep philosophical questions at play (“would children benefit from being born?”), but is generally more comfortable in the territory of policy wonkery, suggesting that the only solid case for pro–natal policies is the case from the economy and sustainable systems of social protection.    

 On one level, I sympathise. It is hard to talk about the desirability of births without touching some very raw nerves (like the fact that around 1 in 4 conceptions in the UK end in abortion – and that there is a direct correlation between numbers of terminations and deprivation) or seeming to invoke the spirits of ethnic nationalism already at play in some pro–natal countries. I’m not sure, however, that this leaves the ‘liberal case’ in a praiseworthy position. In the end, the report is agnostic on whether people being born is a good thing, while being comparative clear that the UK needs more human units of work, consumption, and tax–payment. There’s something not quite right about that. 

 Why are we having fewer children? In the 2009 Theos annual lecture, the late Jonathan Sacks opted for a cultural and philosophical, rather than an economic, explanation. The culprit, he said, was “moral climate change”: “Parenthood involves massive sacrifice: of money, attention, time and emotional energy. Where today, in European culture with its consumerism and its instant gratification ‘because you’re worth it’, in that culture, where will you find space for the concept of sacrifice for the sake of generations not yet born?” 

 I’m not sure I agree – that a moral shift is the primary factor, or that a shift from prevailing attitudes of self–sacrifice to individualism and selfishness are the only relevant moral shift. The obvious rejoinder to the Sacks’ perspective is that it is precisely concern for future human beings that leads us to have fewer children (it’s a big call though, when you think about it, to presume to protect someone by assuring their non–existence). Anyway, climate–change pessimism can’t be the only cause either: fertility rates in the UK have been declining for more than five decades, predating our current ecological self–consciousness.  

I suspect that there are variety of causes, some material, some cultural and philosophical, to which we should pay attention – particularly if we hope to do anything about the problem. The entry of women into the labour force was surely a major factor. 

This roughly coincides with decline in TFR. But then things fold out in unpredictable ways – when women do enter the workforce, lingering patriarchal values may cause women to delay childbearing, (when they do start a family it may be difficult to re–enter the workplace). Anxiety and confusion around gender roles and responsibilities may also play a part: one study amongst women choosing to freeze eggs (reported in The Atlantic) suggested that an important cause was an undersupply of men who are university–educated and committed to fidelity, marriage, and parenthood. In their book, Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson argue that the biggest factor globally is urbanisation – large families are generally advantageous in rural environments and conversely disadvantageous in urban environments. Of course, religiosity continues to be an indicator of higher rates of intended and actual fertility (hence Eric Kaufmann’s question, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?).  

 In summary, let’s beware the single cause fallacy – whether economic or cultural/moral. The truth is, there are dozens of social, cultural, religious, economic, and legal pushes toward and pulls away from child–rearing. My argument, I suppose, is that we ought to at least try and understand them. Perhaps it might even be that the very social protections on offer in liberal democracies erodes the significance of families – who needs siblings when we can rely on services? Liberal ambivalence on this point suggests again that we merely hold certain preferences and make certain choices, and that the state ought simply to affirm and enable those choices. On the really big questions – climate change, and potential population collapses – that approach is dangerously naïve.  


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 Photo by Jill Sauve on Unsplash

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Posted 27 September 2021

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