WEIRD countries have a fertility problem. An ideal fertility rate – the replacement rate, where every individual in a society is replaced by one child – is 2.1 children per woman. Not too crazy.
And yet – the fertility rate of the United States is 1.9. Ditto the United Kingdom. France: 2.0. Canada: 1.6. Bulgaria: 1.5. Germany: 1.4. Hungary: 1.3. Bosnia and Herzegovina: 1.3. Hong Kong: 1.1, at the bottom of the list.
Any fertility rate below 2.1 puts a society on an inevitable long-term path to disappearance. WEIRD countries have high incomes, good education, generally safe societies and all the opportunities a parent could want for a child. Strangely, war-torn Iraq manages a fertility rate of 4.0. Afghanistan, which has been mired in war since the 1970s, has a fertility rate of 5.1. Even North Korea, where the Dear Leader prioritizes his Western movie collection over feeding his citizens, manages 2.0, substantially higher than a number of supposedly superior countries.
In Denmark, TV ad campaigns exhort you to “do it for Denmark.” Denmark’s fertility rate: 1.7.
In Poland, the government gives couples 1000 PLN (about 250 USD) 12 months after the birth of a child. Abortion is illegal. Poland’s fertility rate: 1.3. In Hungary, a new policy will grant 10 million HUF (about 35,000 USD) to young couples that buy a home and agree to have 3 kids within 10 years. Hungary, again: 1.3.
Russia’s government instituted a national holiday for conception and offers various natalist schemes: $9200 for women who give birth to an additional child, more maternity leave, more benefits, 40% of previous salary if a mother leaves work to take care of children, etc. Russia: 1.6. Singapore dropped a previous anti-natalist policy to begin promoting childbirth with various catchy slogans, free cruises and other gimmicky ad campaigns. They also instituted some “baby benefits” for mothers. Singapore: 1.3.
I recently spoke with a young Polish man and his girlfriend, both preparing to begin university in England. I asked them if they planned to have kids, how many if so, and whether they viewed developed countries’ fertility problems with concern. They said they did and immediately offered that governments should provide more maternity leave, more maternal benefits, more financial incentives to have kids, etc. They seemed to think this would alleviate the problem. I told them that lots of countries have natalist policies, but that they didn’t seem to be any closer to solving the problem. This didn’t phase my Poles, and they countered that clearly there simply weren’t enough benefits on offer.
“The government should allow at least two years of maternity leave for new mothers,” said the Polish girl.
“How long do you think a mother should be with her kids to raise them properly?” I inquired.
She mulled the question over and answered: “Until the kids are 13 or 14 and hit puberty.”
“Then what kind of crazy country only allows mothers less than one-tenth of the time they need to be with their kids?”
This got them thinking. Suppose some nasty humans stole a Panda bear’s cub a week after birth and raised it elsewhere away from its natural parents. This would be animal abuse – an outrage! How could we be so heartless to callously separate a mother and child? Yet the same norm is enshrined and essentially unquestioned in our own human societies. Working mothers and mandatory public schooling are extremely recent inventions, less than 200-years-old. Is it too presumptuous to ask whether, in light of the dismal fertility numbers in countries practicing these norms, these norms will not survive another 200 years? And is it too presumptuous to point out these norms might take the people who practice them with them, permanently?
With the advent of Women’s Lib in the 1960s and 1970s, women across the West gained the legal and social privileges necessary to compete with men in the working world. Feminism has achieved all of its major goals: women outnumber men in the university system, they outperform men in the educational system, and they are at least one half of employed persons. The feminist crusade to end the “wage gap,” “microaggressions,” and other minor issues of WL are just mop-up operations in a victorious battle against the Patriarchy that ended decades ago. There are no institutional or social barriers (and in fact, quite a number of institutional and social advantages) left to prevent women from advancing economically. Whatever actual patriarchal oppression that’s left is conducted privately and furtively, not publicly and triumphantly.
Imagine a woman living in a post-patriarchal society. She graduates high school with stellar grades at 18, gets admitted to a fancy university, and graduates with stellar grades from there at 22. Suppose she works until retirement age, around 65. Assuming a low-ball estimate salary of $50,000 a year, this hypothetical woman will earn $2.15 million over her lifetime. Perhaps more importantly, she also gets the social status that comes from a successful career and prestigious credentials. She never has to have kids. She can support herself without trouble for her entire life and participate in polite society.
Now suppose you found this woman at age 25 after she’s already earned about $150,000 and is ready to spend the rest of her life comfortable, well-fed, and secure on her own dime. Suppose you shouted a slogan about “doing it for your country,” played her a funny YouTube video about sex and nicely asked her to quit working and raise children. What are the chances she’d do it?
Suppose you pitched her a deal: if she quits working and raises a child, you’ll pay her $250 12 months after birth. Do you think she’d accept? Well, alright.
Round three: you offer her $35,000 to quit working and raise 3 children in 10 years, after buying a house. Does this sound any more likely? Alright, alright.
Round four: you’ll pay her $9200 for each child she has and will provide her 40% of her $50,000 salary for the rest of her life. And yet, if she has three kids, the grand total still only comes out to about $880,000. Not a bad deal for a woman who already wants children – but, are we living in modern cultures where fecundity, family values and community are lionized, or do the values of free love, individualism, consumerism, and hedonism predominate? Be honest.
OK, you’ve been bested. You pull out the big guns now: you offer her a life-time stipend of approximately $70,000 a year if she quits working forever and devotes her life to having and raising children. This stipend will come out to approximately $3 million by the time she reaches the age of 65. Essentially, you offer to make her a millionaire. Does this sound like it would be more successful at getting women to quit working and raising children (say, until the children were 13 or 14 and had hit puberty) than the previous schemes? $3 million is around the point where my hindbrain stops connotating natalist handout schemes with “hopefully this’ll work” and “there are probably hypothetical individuals out there somewhere who would do this, right?” to “I can see this working on people I know.”
Natalist policies are not enacted in poor and undeveloped countries where the average woman produces 4 or 5 kids over her lifetime. Natalist policies are only enacted in industrialized societies where people have semi-given up on reproducing.
These same societies are without exception also democratic, consumerist, and feminist societies – the spread on their intensities is wide, but they are hopelessly progressive compared to their pre-1960s counterparts. These natalist policies are far, far too optimistic. A woman empowered by feminism is essentially offered a >$2.15 million incentive not to reproduce. To get these women reproducing would require either (a) giving out multi-million dollar fortunes to women as incentives to quit work and raise children, or (b) abolishing feminism and resetting the incentive arithmetic to $0, with perhaps some minor $250-$35,000 incentives in favor of family and childbirth. As far as I know, neither options (a) nor (b) have been enacted by any modern societies, and, as far as I know, no modern society has gone from abysmal fertility rates back to over-2.1 territory.
Getting down to brass tacks and making difficult decisions has become very unfashionable nowadays, especially when it comes to governance and politically sensitive topics. Unfortunately, until natalists –and, frankly, anybody who would like to figure out how to create a stable and rewarding work-family balance for the masses of people living in WEIRD societies – quit focusing on the minutiae of various monetary incentive schemes and begin thinking an extremely unfashionable distance outside the box, there will be no rise in fertility rates.