Friday, March 03, 2006

Too Rich to Live

European fertility is collapsing. No country in Western Europe has enough babies to sustain its population. For stability, a population needs 2.1 children per fertile women. France and Ireland are doing well to reach fertility rates of 1.7. Britain and Sweden at least make it to 1.5 – a rate that cuts the population in half in less than three generations. Austria and Italy have sunk to 1.3, which should halve their population in a generation or so.

The United States, as in many things, is halfway between Europe and the global South in vitality measures. Our birthrate as a whole has gone back up to almost replacement level, at 2.06. Yet within the United States, several states have European-like rates of no marriage and no kids -- California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and, especially, Massachusetts.

Maggie Gallagher reports these figures, from demographer Ron Lesthaeghe, in her February 28 syndicated column. She notes a correlation between the places that don't produce enough babies and the leaders in legalizing same-sex marriage.

I noticed a different correlation. The places without enough babies – to which we can add Japan (fertility rate: 1.32) – are also the richest places on earth. The low fertility states in America are also the richest ones. As I noted in "Should We Skip Kids in Order to Get Rich?" economists have already noticed that you will probably end up richer if you don't have kids. These demographic numbers suggest that rich nations are, in effect, making the same calculation.

Whoever dies with the most toys, still dies. Whichever nation has the most toys but the fewest kids, dies from the earth.


SPorcupine said...

I thought Gallagher did a terrible job of explaining why she thought same-sex marriage fit the story, and I found your mention just about as mysterious.

I think there is a connection, but not a causal one at all, and I'll try to spell it out.

Some cultures (or subcultures) see reproduction as a central part of life's work. Having kids is seen as a major part of adult life, and missing that opportunity is a loss. Raising those kids well is on the shortest list of one's life goals, and the people around you agree with that. Life in general comes with peanut-butter-and-jelly stains, with smaller houses and more racket and simpler vacations than one could have without kids--but that "package deal" is considered a fine offer one enjoys taking. Marriage is first and foremost about setting up well to do that reproducing, though it's also about lots of other good stuff.

There's another idea of the good life that is maybe "epicurean." It's about systematically finding and enjoying great experiences, one after another. Excellent fitness and athletic prowess, deep knowledge, career triumph,, world travel, all sorts of excellences to pursue. In that life, there may be lots of things one wants to do before kids, or instead of kids. In turn marriage is also mainly about a great relationship, rather than those kids who may or may not happen at all.

In that first understanding of life, same-sex marriage can seem odd, because it won't lead to giving birth. In the second understanding, same-sex marriage seems natural, because it's almost entirely about the relationship.

Key result: one way of understanding life is likely to lead to multiple kids and to give a reason to think spouses should be of opposite sexes. The other is conducive to having one child or no chldren and to seeing no issue at all with spouses of the same sex.

SPorcupine said...

My profile (click sporcupine above to read) is surely a portait of someone trying to live both versions of the good life simultaneously.

Gruntled said...

I agree that I left Maggie Gallagher's argument mysterious. I was really just trying to give credit where credit was due to Gallagher for providing me with the demographic numbers, even though I was using them for a different purpose than she did.

That said, though, I think your argument actually supports hers. Gallagher talked about a "culture of generativity," which sounds like the first option you describe.

My main point, concern, though, was not with the culture of generativity, but with sheer love of wealth, which may or may not be used to live a life of rich experience.

SPorcupine said...

I agree with your inference about the connection Gallagher means. I repeat my assertion that she did a terrible job explaining. Worse, she took attention away from her point, roughly as if she called a press conference to address declining fertility and just happened to bring along an giraffe that she'd repainted to be royal blue with silver spots.

Charlotte said...

I'm WAY more worried about a neglectful society, neglectful parents and people who have more children than they can support and nurture than I am about couples who make a thoughful decision to have just one or even none, or about same sex marriages. In a state like Georgia, until we get our schools and our healthcare delivery in order and get on top of the meth and crack problems that have left so many children in state care, we'd probably be wise to follow the European example. said...

Reproducition is very essential to the well-being of each country, it is most vital. We need to keep our young growing and learning so that the country contiues to thrive. Interesting subject.
Raymond B

Anonymous said...

Isn't there a correlation between rich countries and popular immigration destinations? So the population of Austria, say, isn't exactly declining because it's replaced by, say, Turks. How the Austrians plan to handle these new Austrians (and their large families) is the next problem, of course.

And I won't assume that gay families are childless. I think that trend is changing as gay men and lesbians realize that being gay doesn't mean no marriage and no children and are reconsidering what kind of future they want to (and are allowed to) have.

Gruntled said...

Rich countries are popular immigration destinations, in part because the rich natives don't want to do the scut work that makes their economies run. But even there, there are important variations. Germans are failing to reproduce. Immigrants are coming in, especially from Turkey, and Germany is facing a growing crisis in accepting these "guests" as Germans. The immigrants do have higher fertility rates, but they tend to decline rapidly over a couple of generations. Germany also has a significant out-migration, especially of young entrepreneurs, most of whom come to the United States. This can only accelerate the decline.