As if we don’t have enough to worry about already, I read this piece yesterday, suggesting that demographic trends in America are going the way of, well, the rest of the Western world. This concerns me. Demographic slumps are depressing insofar as they tend to signal a lack of hope and vitality in a nation’s population. Even more significantly, they can precipitate some very serious longer-term problems. As a youngish person, I want people to be having babies now, so that when I do eventually reach retirement age, there will be a nice crop of younger people in place to run the country and keep the economy going. But, as countries like Germany and Japan have discovered, steady birth rates are not something we can take for granted in our brave new world. So the question becomes: how can we reverse these demographic trends?
The short answer is that it’s hard. Once they grew out of the “overpopulation” phase, some European countries started trying to spur higher birth rates with a slate of pronatalist policies, including government subsidy for pre-natal care and delivery, lengthy paid parental leaves, and government-sponsored childcare. Some countries have been more inventive. Russia apparently tried instituting a regular “day of copulation” in which workers were given a half-day off so they could go home and have sex. (NB, I’ve seen this mentioned on a few blogs, but have not found a reputable corroborating source. It sounds like the kind of wacky thing the Russians might try, though. Makes you think of 1984 and “our duty to the party”, eh?)
It seems that these measures have had at least a modest effect. Birth rates in Germany, for example, have gone up since the implementation of aggressive pronatalist policies. Of course, as a conservative I implicitly find such interventions distasteful, although it does also occur to me that pronatalist benefits might be a needed counterbalance to entitlements for the elderly. In most human societies, children were the primary retirement plan, and raising them was an investment in one’s own future as well as theirs. Nationalizing benefits for the elderly opens the opportunity for the childless to be “free riders”, enjoying the support of other people’s children without having to invest in raising their own. From one perspective, then, pronatalist benefits could be seen as just compensation to parents. Would there be a way to offer these without giving government an objectionable degree of control over family life?
Given the present financial state of our nation, such questions are mostly academic, and the obvious solution to the demographic problem (along with many other problems) is to fix the economy. People will have more children if they feel financially secure. Unfortunately, I think the reality is that the economy probably isn’t going to be surging back to flushed, rosy-cheeked health anytime in the near future. We need to consider ways to make families feel more secure even in an unstable economy.
What I want to see is a more flexible and dynamic labor market, which opens opportunities for people to prove themselves and potentially learn on the job. For a whole host of reasons, credentialing has become the main ticket to employment nowadays, and this makes people more reluctant to take on serious responsibilities (such as parenting) because these present such a significant handicap in the lengthy and tortuous credentialing game. If people could move in and out of the workforce more easily, parenting would become less daunting financially. It seems to me that our resume-building process is incredibly inefficient, and the hamsters running on the resume-wheel are mainly young people, who should be expending that same energy to start families.
Other thoughts? Are there better ways to encourage people to have babies? Or can someone assuage my worries that these demographic trends portend an ugly future?