If people were wise about relationships, what would the fertility rate be?

We don’t have to speculate about cratering fertility rates around the world, since this is already happening. Japan’s fertility rate is now 1.4 lifetime birth per woman, which is a good way to halve your population in a generation or two. Japan is expected to lose 1/3 of its population by 2050 with the population as a whole aging at the same time.

This isn’t an isolated phenomena:

The trend is very clear. Countries that are poor/developing are mostly above replacement, and everyone else is below. Usually a lot below. Israel seems to be the only economically advanced country with a fertility rate above replacement.

Why has this happened? Birth control has allowed people to choose whether or not to have kids, and from my experience in two countries (Japan and the US), kids just are not affordable to a lot of people. One may surmise that the same kind of thing holds true in Europe, where the fertility rate is catastrophically low in almost every country.

That’s economics, but is there another reason? I think so. I think people are beginning to see relationships as a bad gamble, and so people are getting married less and doing less of the thing that makes you really married: having kids. As an explicit example of this in the US, you have the “men going their own way movement.” In Japan, I think you have a similar sentiment on the part of women: Why get married and have kids when I can just have a job and spend my money my way?

I think until very recently, say the 1960s and 1970s, society did a pretty good job of pressuring people to get into relationships, have kids, and stay in relationships:

• In ancient Rome and China, an unmarried man could be fined or otherwise forced into a marriage.

• Many societies practiced arranged marriage; some still do, but this is dying out.

• Divorce was difficult or impossible until the 20th century.

• Women were pressured into marriage at an early age until quite recently. There is a Joan Rivers routine I saw from the late 60s in which the jokes are all about the increasing pressure a woman would receive as she headed into her late 20s. Nowadays, if a woman is getting married before her late 20s, she’s often seen as “too young.” In Japan, there has been a similar shift in attitudes.

• If you were gay, too bad: get married anyway! Gay men were called “bachelors,” either as a euphemism or out of ignorance.

There is a stat I heard on NPR in 2007 that I remember to this day: The median age for women getting married in 1957 was 20; in 2007 it was 26. That is a huge change! Imagine, in 1957, nearly half of all women getting married were teenagers–it’s mindblowing.

But I think things are getting worse and will still get worse. Why?

• The economic trends are only getting worse. Young people can’t get jobs and thus can’t have kids.

• The above-mentioned social pressures are going from little to zero.

• People are much more savvy today about:

  • Mental illness: 18.2% of the US population suffers from it. In the past, people got into relationships before mental illness appeared (a lot of serious stuff appears in the 20s), or they were just unaware of it. Today, people look out for it and are more likely to stay out or get out of relationships with people who have it.

  • Domestic violence: People used to put up with a lot, and ignorance of DV was massive. Today, people are much more aware and put up with less.

  • Addiction: 7% of adults 18 and older have an alcohol use disorder. Throw in other types of drug abuse, and you have a decent slice of the adult population.

  • Just plain bad behavior: When I first started dating in the late 80s, the term “red flag” either didn’t exist or wasn’t used much. I would never have married my ex in 2000 based on what I know today about what can be expected in a relationship. There were several red flags that I simply thought weren’t a big deal. I think the rise of the Internet has allowed people to talk much more freely (and anonymously) about their relationships and be told by others not to put up with bad and dysfunctional behavior.

  • More options: Online dating, Tindr, etc. People have learned they can shop around, and the tools are out there. It’s easier to date more people and then expect all the good things you experienced with each individual you dated from one person. I personally think I have fallen into this trick bag.

I was seeing a therapist at one point, and he was a positive guy, not a cynic. I suggested to him that barely 25% of the population is truly “relationship material,” and he concurred. And I think that’s the truth. And the more we collectively wise up, the more we understand this fact, the less likely we are to commit and get married, and you can be we are less likely to have a kid with someone when it could tie us to someone we don’t want to be with for a couple decades. I have a daughter with my ex, who is a very unhappy and manipulative Japanese woman, and it’s really fucked up my life.

How is society dealing with cratering fertility rates? Right now, it seems that measures are few and those aren’t doing anything (obviously, I don’t have comprehensive knowledge about what countries are doing, but I haven’t heard of much). I know Japan has some small financial incentives to make it slightly, slightly easier to afford kids. Children’s health insurance is cheap, and some places actually pay you money each month for each child in your household.

But end-stage capitalistic systems mostly don’t give a shit. We have a surplus of labor, so if those people don’t have kids, well cool. The fact that this reduces consumption doesn’t matter, since we’ll just produce less for the remaining rich people. Yes, it’s a death spiral, but a certain percentage of the population will always be doing OK, so who cares?

When I talk to people about this issue, often the knee-jerk response is that the world is overpopulated anyway, so this is good! But actually, it’s not good because it’s not planned and population is a local issue as well as a global issue. Japan, through a kind of social incompetence, is committing national suicide. It’s gone from a company of enthusiasm and abundance from the 1950s to the bubble bursting in 1989 to one of deep malaise, where a large percentage of the population is simply bowing out of sexual relationships. Schools and other facilities for children are closing down, and the country is basically being run for the benefit of retirees. It’s sad.

So what do you think about all of the above?

Here’s a handy demographic transition model that divides it into the 4 stages. I think it’s pretty much accepted that “what people want”, as a group, is a below-replacement-level number of children (even if socially this screws things up). In most developed countries that are still in stage 3, I think it’s just a matter of how widely birth control is used (aka, a matter of education and social acceptance).

As so often, the subject line and the actual post widely diverge.

As for the question in the subject line: probably somewhat lower than today. I know a bunch of people who made kids with the wrong people. They may not have found the right people while they were still young enough to be willing and able to be parents.

But don’t discount the Dunning-Kruger effect: people who suck at relationships probably don’t realize they suck at relationships and happily procreate, only to have the whole thing blow up in their faces later. (And having a kid to strengthen your relationship never works; quite the opposite.)

I don’t think 1.4 kids per woman says all that much about the desire to have kids: apparently a lot of people have only one. So they do want to have kids. But for some reason they feel one is enough or two is too difficult. Society could help a lot here by recognizing that a big part of a school’s job is to coop up kids so parents can get some work done and thus not release them in the middle of the afternoon.

What surprises me is that 80% of people still have kids these days. I only like them in small doses.

I don’t think that reversing the population explosion of the last few hundred years is a bad thing. We probably don’t want to go extinct because we can’t be bothered to reproduce, but we’re very, very far away from that point.

Quite edifying, thanks! The question is how countries will cope. Right now, they are not even trying.

Perhaps in the future, some people’s jobs will just to be to raise extra children.

How so?


Yes, that’s the theme of the movie Idiocracy: dumb people will keep having kids because they don’t know what’s good for them, while smart people will have fewer. The thing is, I think if you give low-cost birth control to dumb people and say, “Here, screw all you want–you won’t get pregant!” a lot of people are going to take that deal. Also, there is peer influence. If you are dumb and your slightly smarter friends aren’t having kids, that vibe so to speak can trickle down.

Well, 1.4 means that a lot of people are also opting for zero, so I think it does say something. It’s also just a fact that a lot of people in Japan are simply opting out of relationships altogether.

Like I said in my OP…

Sure, there is no danger of the human race going extinct. But social upheaval and degeneration is a reality in Japan (and I assume other countries), and that’s not a good thing. Our goal is not merely to preserve the species but also civilization.

I have sometimes thought that Japan could fix it’s population decline with three “simple” laws.

  1. Mandatory triple overtime for any employee working more than 40 hours a week. No exempt employees. You want to make your employees work 12 hours a day, you can pay them 2.5x their previous salary Hey look, workers suddenly have time to be home with their families.

  2. Mandatory 6 months leave for both parents when a child is born, with their job waiting for them when they get back or 6 months severance. Whoa, now parents have time to bond with their children and women aren’t left feeling like they are stuck choosing between kids and career.

  3. Fully paid-for basic income for the elderly Whoa, now women aren’t worried about getting stuck being the caregiver for their husband’s parents instead of following their career.

The obvious problems with these are that economic growth would probably slow and the Japanese budget would probably take a hit, but I think Japan’s problems are more problems of social tradition than anything else.
It’s a different problem in Europe and North America, where I think the declining birthrate has more to do with “I want to have fun instead being covered in baby puke so I’ll skip the kids”. Granted, I would rather that kids were only born to parents that actually wanted and could afford children, so this isn’t an entirely negative phenomenon, but I imagine the fertility rate in all Industrialized nations would probably take a step up if they took the three steps cited above, just not as much due to cultural differences.

ellowjacketcoder, I’m basically in sympathy with your ideas, but they are chiefly economic, and I think Japan is the best example of what end-state capitalism does to a country. Why? Because the country really had no other problems than an economic system that has rather quickly robbed it of vitality, so that factor has been well isolated. Thus we need what you say or something close to it–but also an entirely new economic system.

I think that is also a big factor in Japan. The additional cultural factor is that Japanese people just don’t do relationships very well. Pretty atrocious levels of marital satisfaction per the stats, shitty communication, and general dysfunction. Once Japan left the abundance of the economic boom and women were free to choose their own destiny socially, a lot of them opted to tell men to fuck off. And a lot of men have chosen not to bother as well.

It’s hard to say. Kids have gone from being “profit centers” on the farm to “cost centers” in the service/information economy, in which education has become prohibitively expensive (though I think “college” is a rigged game that needs to change with the times as well).

True enough. But as you can see at Census.gov (pages 11 & 13), that pretty much the low point for median age for marriage. Age plummeted from 1940-1950. I’d say the economic boom, coming out the depression and WWII and good-paying factory jobs straight from high school for men allowed for earlier marriage age. But that boom-time ended. Stagflation and so on. Obviously, there are other factors as to why age is continually rising, but economics is, I think, the primary reason for it dropping when it did.

I’m just saying, thinking of the 1950s America as the typical that has now changed is, to my mind, far less accurate than considering the 50s and early 60s the aberration.

Good point! I think the other factor is increased automobile ownership: teens started screwing in the car, got pregnant, and got married. I heard another stat somewhere that teen pregnancy was at an alltime high in the 1950s.

The stats you provided, however, have another factor: the Great Depression in the 1930s, when (I have read) the fertility rate plummeted. So it would be interesting to see the data for the 1920s and earlier. Plus, 2000 to the present, has anything changed? Well, according to NPR, you get the 26 figure in 2007, which is higher than the 25-ish figure for 2007.

That graph doesn’t tell the whole story, however, since it doesn’t say if there is an increase or decrease in the number of people who are getting married in the first place or the fertility rate of those who do (or don’t, for that matter). We do know that the fertility rate in the US continues to decline.

I’m with you, however, on the 1950s being not the normal. It was, so to speak the “sweet spot” of our economy: when the supply and demand for labor were in nice balance. I don’t think we’ll ever get there again. We are going to continue to automate and rely on capital instead of people for production, and unless we change our economic system, more are more people are going to be cut out and cut off.

I don’t think economic factors are much relevant. Poor people tend to have more children.

I think that it’s just ongoing but slow cultural change following on from the invention of reliable birth control. It used to be you couldn’t avoid having children without forgoing sex. Now you can. For a generation or two everyone kept having children - even though they didn’t have to - through cultural habit. Slowly an increasing number of people have begun to realise that -

  • unless they are really into children and families, there is not much in it for them personally to have lots of children, or even any at all;

  • there is less and less societal and family pressure to have children;

  • breeding is a necessity for the species, not a necessity (or even an advantage) for any given member of the species;

  • in a knowledge and educational economy, with advanced medical care, putting one’s efforts as a parent into intensive raising of one or two children will lead to better outcomes than putting one’s more diffuse efforts into raising six children;

Economic factors are definitely relevant, as you later say:

That’s all economics. I think poor people have more children mostly because they have less knowledge of and access to birth control, no?

I agree with the rest you say!

I think it’s because the opportunity cost is relatively lower: you can only get so poor, but children can be a joy, regardless. I mean, if I effectively give up partner at a law firm to have a few kids, that’s huge. Giving up a year or two of minimum wage is not at all the same thing. Medicaid skews this even more. Just having a baby–totally normal delivery–would cost me whatever my out-of-pocket maximum is for myself and the child. $10K? Something like that. And I’m exceedingly middle class with normal middle class insurance. That, plus 6 weeks of no wages would literally impoverish us, and makes having a second child seem impossible. If I had medicaid, pregnancy/delivery would be covered. I can see seriously thinking about a second child in that case.

I do think it’s true that children have gone from “required to make the farm work and support me in my old age” to “how am I going to afford day care/food/college/etc for this little bundle of joy”, but I’m not sure how you get from there to college being a scam.

To comment on poor people having larger numbers of children, I would posit that a low socioeconomic class is correlated with a lack of long-term decision making. (Please note I’m not calling poor people stupid, but people that don’t plan past “what would me happy now” are generally not as high on the socioeconomic ladder as people that think “Is this going to be worth it in five years?”.)

The solution to that is education, or at least the valuing of education and long term thinking, which is more of societal issue than something the government can pass a law about.

I once performed an extremely rough calculation that if I wanted to pay full tuition, room, and board at a top college for a child born tomorrow, I’d have to save ~$15k/yr from birth. I think that was projecting a recent trend in tuition increases and assuming a 5% annual return on investment, so it’s probably low.
And that doesn’t include private school for primary and secondary education, and supplemental enrichment activities.

Not everyone cares about these things. But for people who do, they’ll delay parenthood and have fewer children. I haven’t read any literature on trends in inflation-adjusted spending on offspring over time. I’d like to.

Very good points. In life in general, there is definitely an inflection point at which it’s easier to just be totally poor than try to make it as a member of the middle class. At that level, you can have 2-3 kids and not be worse off than having 1 or 0.

Indeed, it’s a totally separate issue that I threw in.

True, I agree.

And I think it’s also economics, since, as I said above, there is a point at which it “pays” just to give up and be poor.

Yes, I’m sure it would be a ridiculous amount of money.

It would be interesting. This also comes into play with the “inflection point” I mentioned above. If you are middle class and envision sending your kids to college, it’s quite expensive. If you think, “Fuck it, who cares about college?” and have 4 kids, then that lack of investment doesn’t matter.

Re economics, not necessarily except in the broadest sense. The cost of having a large number of poorly educated children could be about the same as having one well educated child. It’s not necessarily a decision based on financial or economic concerns. It is probably just based on the optimal outcome for the child ie “To be happy and successful my kid will be better off if they have skills based on knowledge and smarts, because that’s what society is about these days”.

I don’t think poor people have less access to birth control these days, at least in most parts of the world. They have less access to the culture and education which would lead them to the idea that having a lot of children may not be an optimal long term outcome regardless of what the (potential) grandparents or their church say.

Any chance it’s really because women were simply tired of their biology determining their destiny? Like maybe they wanted to pursue interests like science, technology, being athletes, astronauts?

Being able to control births gave them that freedom. It was a long time coming, after all.

Just something to consider!

Yes, that should have been one of my bullet points. Women moving into the workplace in general gives them less time to be mothers, I think it’s safe to say. Men can be house husbands, that that requires great social change that has really only gotten started recently.