The Procreation Recession 11/25
Why are people are losing interest in sex, marriage, and children?
The good news is often just one consequence of the bad. There are fewer divorces because there are fewer marriages, and so more of those that begin survive. There are fewer abortions because there are fewer pregnancies, and so more of those that happen are wanted. There are fewer out-of-wedlock births because there are fewer births in general. The same pattern is evident beyond sexuality and family too. Fewer teenagers are dying in car accidents because fewer teenagers are getting driver’s licenses. There is less social disorder, we might say, because there is less social life.
Excessive risk aversion now often deforms parenting, education, work, leadership, and fellowship in our society. It is intertwined with a more general tendency toward inhibition and constriction—with Americans walking on eggshells around each other in many of our major institutions, and with codes of speech and conduct becoming increasingly prevalent.
Not surprisingly, he views technology as a causal factor.
Particularly for Americans who live in cities, the internet has also come to mediate different parts of our real-world experience (from dating to calling a taxi to getting food at a restaurant) in ways that have let more people live as functional loners, meeting their needs with a minimum of eye contact or interpersonal risk. And countless younger Americans dissipate their erotic energies in similar seemingly riskless substitutes for human contact, particularly video games and pornography—the latter of which has grown into a hideous, colossal scourge that our society has inexplicably decided to pretend it can do nothing about.
I would add that smart phones and the Internet orient us toward the immediate and away from the enduring. I’m old enough to remember when romance grew out of knowing someone in the context of mutual friends. Your relationship was embedded in a group history, and the collective friendship helped maintain it into the future.
From the standpoint of the immediate, the decision to have a child might seem about as consequential as the decision to acquire a pet, only with more expenses to worry about (like day care). But a pet does not create a new, deeper relationship with your parents or provide them with the thrill of grandchildren. And pets do not give you the prospect of someday becoming grandparents yourselves.
Having children matters to someone who feels a connection with the past and the future. They star in the epic movie that is your life. Possibilities about how their lives may play out fill your daydreams. I worry that, distracted by tech gadgets, many people don’t have time to daydream and their movie has lost the plot.
I think housing costs are an under-appreciated factor. A decent house, in a decent school zone, with a <1 hour commute to a major job market can be insanely expensive until you've been working for a number of years. Our decision to treat housing as an "asset class" more so than "shelter" has major repercussions.
Here's a fact that cuts against a purely technologically-determined cause. The fertility rate (TFR) for native-born French women has been declining more or less steadily for nearly 300 years, with the WWI period being a temporarily negative deviation from trend, and the baby boom era a temporarily positive one. Following the baby boom, that TFR declined below replacement and has been stuck there for over 50 years. People sometimes guess "the pill!", but that obviously that can't be squared at all with, "300 years, and our ancestors were neither stupid nor helpless and have always been able to control their fertility rates in the old-fashioned ways.
It's not just France. Rates in most countries which were industrializing or getting richer tended on average to decline by about half during the 19th century. The general timing of such changes in many places and over such a long period of time seem to correlate with levels of wealth, urbanization, religion, and the general status of women - their legal emancipation on egalitarian terms, grant of the franchise, education, and participation in the labor market.
Not only can we compare the timing of these changes between countries given these levels, but we can compare the timing of changes for *different classes within the same country* given the different levels of education and wealth of those classes. And in general, in the past two centuries, we see wealthy, urban, educated elites running ahead of the general trend.
All that tells us that it's mostly not 'technology', especially not recent digital communications tech. Among other things, a lot of it is simply the 'opportunity cost' of having children - in money, time, leisure, status, career, ambition, etc. - which has never been higher. Affordability matters, of course, but my position is that it's not nearly as important as people claim. For instance, our ancestors were much poorer and had many more kids. But affordability is the most socially acceptable rationale (or excuse) and so people focus on it in erroneous exclusion of the various more important factors.
The trouble is not that women in particular have lost the 'epic story' aspect of understanding the path of their own lives, it's that they now have an alternative and competitive epic story to pursue which rivals and often trumps the one which includes children or grandchildren, especially insofar as their understanding of what constitutes 'epic' derives from being influences by socially prominent cues and signals about which activities and ways to spend ones time are more elite and higher in status.