It’s not a fertility problem, it’s a marriage problem
I read – and shared – a piece from Medium with my Facebook readers yesterday morning. It’s about the precipitous decline of childbirths in the West – particularly in America – and especially in the year 2017.
In it the author, Lyman Stone, contemplates the impending collapse of the US fertility rate and tries to make some sense of it. He also rings a few alarm bells, launching wondering statements into the ether in an attempt to explain “why” this is happening. And also, to communicate to the reader that barring a full-stop culture-wide reversal of the trend, there is little we can actually do to recover to a baseline replacement rate of fertility.
I think he makes some compelling points, and that his data are both fascinating and confounding.
I also think we may be missing the forest for the trees.
The problem, from where I see it, hasn’t as much to do with our fertility rates as with what we have done – or what we have allowed to be done – to marriage.
Marriage has undergone a radical paradigm shift over the past decade. Sure, the roots of that shift date much further back, reaching into the origins of widely available artificial contraception and no-fault divorce, but marriage has been transformed from a commonly-agreed upon arrangement of mutual sexual fidelity between one male and female “till death do them part” has been dismantled piecemeal over the last decade at breakneck pace. And not only dismantled, but resurrected as something entirely different, styled and promulgated through the media and disseminated with breathtaking effectiveness across the digital continent.
So let me bring this back around to my thesis: people aren’t having children because people aren’t getting married. At least not “married” in the way we would have commonly recognized as marriage 100, 50, or even 25 years ago.
Let me try to explain.
Old view of marriage: (leaving religion entirely aside) Life partner/best friend + sexual attraction + desire to build a family + pledge of fidelity and financial/emotional support through thick and thin = lifetime commitment.
(Were there people who fell outside the bounds of this overgeneralization I’m making? Yes. But they were cultural outliers.)
New view of marriage: contractual arrangement ordered toward self-fulfillment/actualization, sexual desire and acquisition of maximum pleasure + material goods + financial fail-safes engaged to legally protect both parties in case of dissolution + mutually agreed upon terms of behavior/performance = finite legal arrangement hinging upon the satisfaction of both parties.
You notice in the old view of marriage, friendship – or at least partnership – and the creation of a family, built to last, were at least a part of the bundled expectations at the outset of marriage. My theory is that far fewer couples today go into marriage thinking primarily of the other, let alone the potential others, who might benefit from their committed union.
Marriage used to be ordered toward the future and toward the other. I would argue the marriage, in its present culturally understood form, is ordered primarily towards the present and the self.
And that’s not a great recipe for childbearing.
Because if marriage is primarily about me, and about my fulfillment in the present moment, then it makes almost zero sense to take the flying leap of courageous insanity necessary to procreate the next generation.
First, because the cost to me personally is so high: social, professional, financial, physical, and even sexual well-being can all take a real beating during childbearing and rearing.
Second, if I am partnered with a spouse who views our union primarily in terms of contractual benefits weighed against risks, and whose fidelity I cannot count on, I would have to be somewhat delusional to take the step to introduce a permanent fixture into our union: a child.
Until we can restore and adequately communicate an authentic vision of marriage as the fundamental building block and the primordial relationship of society, no government policy or tax break is going to make a dent in our fertility freefall.
Unless we recapture a sense of sacred duty toward the future, and an obligation to provide for someone beyond ourselves and our immediate needs, then from a purely hedonistic perspective, marriage looks completely insane, and having a child might be considered tantamount to self harm.
Are there other factors at play? Surely.
The current economic situation presumes a dual income household in most parts of the country (and given the typical consumerist expectation of standard of living), and bucking that trend by having more than 2 kids and almost by proxy, being priced out of daycare as a viable option, means being willing to suffer the cost of a radical downgrade in “experiences” and standard of living.
Like maybe being a single car family. Or not taking vacations. Or not owning a house for the first 5 or 10 or ever years of marriage. Or not bankrolling (gasp) a trip for every single offspring through a 4-year university of their choosing.
Of course, there are more dire circumstances than the absence of a college fund. And many families can and do choose to suffer those iniquities willingly out of love, or at least resignedly through gritted teeth and furrowed brows. And those couples, in my opinion, are the real heroes in this equation. Couples who don’t just forgo the annual vacation or the college fund or the organic milk, but who live a life markedly below what is considered “standard” middle class living, foregoing even basic pleasures and nearly all luxuries and likely being ridiculed while so doing.
But if the rest of us can’t get past the vision of marriage as a “me first” vehicle for self-fulfillment and happiness that may happen to include a kid or two at some nebulous point down the road, provided all the appropriate financial failsafes are in place and the milestones of adulthood in a materialistic consumer-driven society such as ours are checked off, then we’ll make little if any headway in rebalancing our precarious fertility rate.
And so, finally, why does it matter?
Why look to the future and worry about a time that doesn’t personally concern us?
Why not just leave the childbearing to the religious zealots and the immigrants and the poor, uneducated working class to pick up the slack?
In short, does it matter that people are no longer getting married and having babies?
Being 20 or 30 years old can indeed at times feel something like immortality, the inevitable physical and mental and financial slowdown of old age will one day claim us all, if we are fortunate enough to achieve it.
So even if we have no personal interest in weighing ourselves down with the baggage of a lifelong commitment and a handful of small people who share our DNA, have we stopped to consider the consequence of an aging population outnumbering the generation or two beneath it by 50 or 100 or even 200%?
The choices we make today will engineer the society we inhabit in the future. And as everyone who has ever had a mom who drilled mom-isms into their little brains can repeat in a singsong voice, “our choices have consequences.”
And a future of upside-down demographics where the culture is overwhelmingly grey and non-productive, fiscally speaking? That’s where forced – and likely plenty of voluntary, as is the duty of a good materialist – euthanasia will probably come into play.
Look to Japan to see the social and economic cost of an upside-down population where every worker is disproportionately responsible for 2 or 3 or even 4 pensioners a piece, and do the math.
On a fundamental economic level, our failure to adequately replace the dying, aging population otherwise known as all of humanity leads to a gruesome end-of-life scenario for those of us who will not or cannot invest in the next generation.
But who cares? Shrugs the pro choice, pro radical individualism, pro what-suits-me-needn’t-concern-you camp.
I suppose that remains to be seen, whether those who are so flippant about other people’s lives today maintain that perspective on their own lives one day in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, the rest of us should be getting about the business of having and raising families, despite the temptation to count the cost – and the cost is often and increasingly dear.
But when you look a little further down the road, through the mists of time, the long-term cost looks to be far, far greater.