Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Falling Birth Rates and the Quandary of Modern Parenthood

Two excellent articles at Tech Central Station explore the problem of declining birthrates in developed countries, from slightly different perspectives. Pavel Kohout examines the increasingly dire population crisis in the European Union and attributes the precipitous fall in the number of Europeans having children to the continents generous-to-a-fault pension and welfare system. Europeans pride themselves on this social safety net; however, Mr. Kohout argues the cost of maintaining it, and the attitudes it fosters may be pushing Europeans straight toward extinction. Prior to the pension system, having children comprised the best long-term financial investment a person could make to provide for his or her old age. The more children one had, the more support one could expect to enjoy in one's later years. The pension system changed that - removing the need to have children to ensure support in one's old age. Moreover, the high taxes required to sustain the pension (and welfare) system confiscate such a large percentage of young adults' salaries that it makes the cost of raising even a single child almost prohibitive for those not on the top rungs of the economic ladder.

To put it straightforwardly, and perhaps a little cynically, in the past children used to be regarded as investments that provided their parents with means of subsistence in old age. In Czech the word "vejminek" (a place in a farmhouse reserved for the farmer's old parents) is actually derived from a verb meaning "to stipulate": in the deed of transfer, the old farmer stipulated the conditions on which the farm was to be transferred to his son. Instead of an "intergenerational" policy, there used to be direct dependence of parents on their children. This meant that people had immediate economic motivation to have a sufficiently numerous and well-bred offspring - whereas today's anonymous system makes all workers pay for the pensions of all retirees in an utterly depersonalized manner.
This system enables huge numbers of "free riders" to receive more than what would correspond to their overall contribution in their productive life. Those with incomes way above the average, on the contrary, are penalized, as the system gives them less money than they contributed to it. This is referred to as the "solidarity principle". In terms of birth rate, this arrangement is discouraging for both the low-income group and the high-income one. The latter feel that they are not going to need children in the old age, while the former believe that they can't afford to have them.
While the generous pension and welfare system creates a prosperous life for individuals enjoying its benefits, the long term effect on society seems akin to drug dependency - the addict enjoys the illusion of pleasure whilst the body withers away.
When a modern young European has to choose between setting up a family of his own and a comfortable life without children, he is very likely to pick the latter option -- unless he belongs to a social class which regards children chiefly as a source of social benefits. A high amount of taxation combined with ill-functioning labor and housing markets is a truly genocidal mix. That is the case of Italy, but also Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Its impact cannot be corrected by all sorts of government subsidies paid out to young families. On the contrary, under certain circumstances the benefits for families may even lead to a drop in birth rate.
The collapse of European birth rates has left the continent vulnerable to outside invasion. The same liberal politics that gave birth to open, tolerant societies and the welfare state were founded on a metaphysical universalism that extended human rights to all peoples. The proponents of that universalism pried open Europe's doors (and America's too) to immigrants from all over the world, arguing that Europe should offer haven to those seeking to flee persecution and wanting economic betterment. Unfortunately, whatever benefits might have been gained by selectively admitting the best and brightest from outside Europe were squandered as the liberals lost their minds to multiculturalist ideology and swung wide the doors to anyone who wanted to immigrate to Europe. The consequence has been the admittance of millions of immigrants from the Islamic world, a sizeable fraction of whom cannot function in Western society and refuse to assimilate to Western values. Many such alientated European Muslims - caught in the vicious cycle of poverty and unemployment cause by the crushing reglatory and tax systems necessary to maintain the pension and welfare system - have declared war on Western society and become jihadists, bent on murder and mayhem in the name of Islam.

Europe has begun to awake to the threat it allowed inside its borders - but it may be too late. The Muslim birth rate in Europe vastly exceeds the birth rate of native Europeans.
Instead of integration of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa into a majority European society, the opposite will occur: the immigrants will integrate the existing European culture into their own civilization. After some time, it will be their civilization that will become dominant. One does not have to be a supporter of Jean-Marie Le Pen to feel a little anxious about that. It is not a problem of ethnics and their mingling. It is a matter of society, its values, and democracy as such. European tolerance competes with Islam, which is not always a religion of peace, as many Europeans would like to believe. Radical Islamic preachers openly condemn democracy. They interpret it not as a social system but as a pagan cult, which prefers the voices of people to the voice of God. This and other theories of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his conservative fellow-believers are proclaimed in many mosques throughout Europe.
James D. Miller obliquely touches on reasons for the fall in American birth rates from a slightly different perspective. Mr. Miller attempts to answer Maureen Dowd's recent column in which she bemoaned the fact that successful men like to marry less career-ambitious women, like the secretaries and personal assistants, leaving career oriented women - presumably like Ms. Dowd herself - without many marriage prospects.

Mr. Miller concedes that Ms. Dowd's observation is likely true and suggests that the key to understanding the motivation behind high-achieving male marriage strategy may be found in the man's desire for children.
Although children are a blessing, they're also time sinks. Two married people can't both work jobs for 60+ hours a week and have enough time to raise a few kids properly. Realizing this, many men who intend to have several children and time-intensive jobs often seek women who are more child- than career-oriented.
The cost of raising a child in the US rises every year. Between the cost of education and medical care many families struggle with just one child. The financial squeeze becomes especially acute for middle class families who must contend with the extra expenses of maintaining a middle class lifestyle on a limited budget. If one parent opts to stay at home (almost universally the mother), then the financial resources of the family may be so constrained as to force them to forego private schools ($5,000-10,000 a year, per child, on average) or the status symbols one traditionally associates with middle class, suburban living. The thing about status symbols is that people strongly crave them and are reluctant to surrender them. Hence, increasingly few middle class families can afford to have only one parent drawing a salary. But even with both parents working, each additional child greatly increases the families operating cost. Thus, even successful, high salaried couples in which both parents work increasingly tend to limit the number oc children.

Women who complain that high-salaried men mostly choose women with lower career ambitions (and salary) than themselves are being hypocritical, Mr. Miller argues, since women mostly prefer men who display strong career ambition and earn a high salary. The quandary for career oriented women only gets worse since their desires may be at odds with those of the men they wish to attract. Mr. Miller cites the recent example of the collapse of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's marriage. True enough, a carton of milk has a longer shelf life than most Hollywood marriages, but the Pitt/Aniston separation offers a good example of the dilemma the modern feminist woman faces. If media accounts are to be trusted, Mr. Pitt, now in his 40's, wanted children right away, whereas Ms. Aniston, in her 30's and in the prime of her career, wanted to delay - perhaps indefinitely. Perhaps this wasn't the issue that unraveled their union, but it does pose a serious problem for feminists. Women who postpone having children into their late 30's or 40's often find that biology frowns on their plans. And men usually want to be young enough to play with their children as they grow up. Thus men tend to choose women who are younger, want children and are willing to sacrifice a career to have them.

Dowd asks if the "feminist movement [is] some sort of cruel hoax? The more women achieve, the less desirable they are?" The answer is "yes" for any woman who defines achievement only in career terms. This type of woman would want only a man with a high-powered job, but what could she offer him? He doesn't need her income since he already makes a good living himself. If he wants offspring, what he most needs in a wife is someone to be primarily a caregiver; someone who considers successful child raising the highest possible achievement.

The majority of working parents can find enough time to spend with their children, but only because most of us have jobs that don't require 60+ hours of work each week. But the few who intend to climb to the very tops of their career ladders and are therefore willing to devote nearly every waking hour to their jobs face a choice of (A) not having children, (B) having neglected children, or (C) having a spouse who is willing to devote little time to his or her job. Dowd shouldn't attack ambitious men who have chosen option (C). Rather, she should convince career-oriented college women that they should stop dreaming of marrying investment bankers and start looking for men who don't want high-status, time-intensive jobs.
Feminism did much to raise the standards of women by rightly breaking old, outdated barriers to their participation in business, politics and education. Society is better for the legal equality between the sexes that feminism fought to guarantee, and for opening many formerly closed doors to women. However, feminism went too far when its proponents promised women that they could have everything. You can't. Trade-offs exist for everyone. Choosing one path in life often eliminates others. Young men and women need to think clearly about what they want while they are in their college years, basing their decisions on the real consequences of their choices and the contraints of biology. Those who base their choices on a politically correct, but utterly flawed, understanding of the way the world works are apt to be very disappointed in the long run.


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