Pakaluk agreed that there is widespread consensus on the economic and social problems associated with the long-term trend of lower fertility.
“We see immediately that it is not socially optimal from any rational social planning perspective because you know you cannot support the generous social programs that we like to think are good for society,” Pakaluk said. “Things like a decent social security system, MediCare, MedicAid, you just cannot sustain them in the long run with a total fertility rate of 1.7.”
But if the wider problems associated with dropping fertility rates are well known, both Pakaluk and Last highlight widespread dissatisfaction at the personal level.
“While the wider societal problems are well known,” Pakaluk said, “what is fascinating is that is seems that it isn’t individually optimal either.”
“What we do know, which is not often raised in media coverage, is that over the last several decades every survey in a Western country that asks women to describe their ideal family size – every single one everywhere – gives you a number about one child more than women end up having.”
Last told CNA that these numbers need to be considered as a factor in the state of our society.
“What we are seeing is the constant ‘fertility gap’ between people’s stated desire to have more than two kids and the reality that they tend to have less,” Last said. “For a whole host of reasons, people aren’t meeting their own expectations, and that has wider societal impact.”
Pakaluk said that the connection between parenthood and individual happiness is well known but rarely considered in relation to the fertility gap.
“We do know that children are a tremendous source of satisfaction for both men and women and if you take the net effect of [available data] on happiness and wellbeing - even in very controlled studies - we know that children contribute a tremendous amount of happiness.”
“I would certainly say that we need to look at [how] we have the lowest birthrates on record and the highest rates of addiction and depression on record. I’m not ready to say that is causal, but I think we need to think about it,” Pakaluk said.
“We are living in a fascinating paradox. In the post-feminist age of women’s right and control of reproduction they are not getting what it is that they say they want.”
No easy answers
If the causes of long-term demographic decline are difficult to untangle, so too are efforts to reverse or mitigate the effects of the trend.
Last noted that the standard response to address the economic problems associated with declining fertility is to rely on immigration to supply the demographic difference. But, he cautioned, this offers an imperfect fix.
“Immigration offers a short-term solution to the problem of funding entitlement programs for governments, but it doesn’t solve the long-term problem,” Last told CNA.
“In a healthy model you want to see a kind of pyramid shape, with the largest cohort among the youngest people tapering up to the oldest. Relying on adult immigration creates a bulge around the middle, which doesn’t address the underlying problem or future effects of low fertility and an ageing population.”
Last said that various policy solutions had been tried in different parts of the world, but without significant effects.
“Governments in all different parts of the world have experimented with policies to try to get people to have more children, but there isn’t any example which demonstrates real success – even in Singapore where the government basically offered $20,000 for people to have a kid, that only goes so far,” Last said.
“The bottom line is that having a child is a heavy lift, and no policy is going to make up someone’s mind to do it.”
Pakaluk agreed, pointing out that most models and policies made assumptions about individual behavior which simply could not account for the full human condition.
“Economists like to model fertility choices as the product of a highly rational process,” she said. “But in reality, no economist will ever tell you that even their idealized agents are acting subconsciously.”
“My read is that if you talk to women in their early 20s, you will get a response that sound very conscious and deliberate. But the choices that ‘make sense’ to people seem to be highly informed by something in the [cultural] water,” said Pakaluk.
According to Last, there is a level or irreducible complexity to changes in the fertility rate, intended or otherwise.
“The causes of lower fertility are incredibly complicated, and there is no obvious or simple mechanism for moving those numbers in the other direction,” he said. “It isn’t a matter of simply pushing button A and pulling lever X, it’s everything.”
“Of course,” Last noted, “ consistently the single greatest tracker of higher fertility is church attendance: across all faith communities, people who regularly show up for religious services have more kids.”
“I think a big part of this is looking at your life as part of a linear continuum, understanding your place between what has come before and what will come after helps condition you to understanding the greater good of starting a family and having children,” said Last.
“If your worldview is primarily formed around personal fulfillment and self-actualization, where is the incentive to have a family? You might have one child for the experience, but not two or three or four.”