What do declining fertility rates tell us about a society’s future?

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by Marcus Roberts

Over at National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty recently discussed the latest fertility figures from the United States. Once again, they were in decline: in 2019 the total fertility rate (the number of children each woman on average is expected to have over her life) dropped to 1.7. This is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 and means that, absent large scale immigration, the USA’s population will start to naturally decline.

This fertility rate is the lowest on record and marks about the twelfth year in a row in which it has declined (from just before the GFC). This is now a trend which has reduced the USA’s position as the outlier among western nations – for many years America had a fertility rate closer to replacement than its East Asian and West European competitors and allies.

Dougherty worries about the atomisation that this trend will bring. Family trees will collapse inwards: there will be fewer siblings, aunts, cousins and uncles. As he puts it “more people in the future will grow up with shrivelled kin networks, fewer relations with people who are obliged to socialise and network with each other”.

This reduces our sense of comfort and confidence in the world: the school and support which the family provides to us all will be weakened, especially in its role as the first of the independent civic associations that undergird society.

Without a strong family network, society loses a bulwark against the forces of social conformism. (I’m not sure about the States, but this is something desperately obvious in New Zealand – the last few weeks have shown us comprehensively that we are a nation of conformists.)

More generally, low fertility societies are low confidence societies: too few are investing in the future by investing in the next generation. They also tend towards suspicion and paranoia: immigrants aren’t seen as reinforcements to the nation’s mix, but replacements of the nation’s natives.

A large part of the decision to delay having children, or forgo doing so at all, is due to concern that we have material prosperity sorted before bringing children into the world.  We need to have finished our education, have a secure job lined up, and preferably be on the property-owning ladder before we feel settled enough to have children. Even if all of these material goals are met, having children is pushed back into the late 20s or early 30s. Making child rearing dependent on material security also means that fertility rates are depressed by economic downturns and recessions.

But even when the economy is growing, the lack of extended family trees and social networks in which more than two children are the norm means that it is hard for a society to increase its fertility rate. There are fewer social support networks available: older parents means older grandparents who can contribute less to the raising of grandchildren.

What can be done? Is this a problem which merely requires policy tinkering like maternity leave or increased day care? Are we instead witnessing something greater: the beginning of the end of our current economic/social/culture milieu as we fail to replace ourselves? And if so, what will replace us?

If a society is not even guaranteeing its future through replacement generations of children, then it is a failing society. We need to start acknowledging this.

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