Last night after picking up a few groceries I drove through my smallish home town of Mendham and was surprised to find traffic backed up. At any time other than morning rush hour, it is always a surprise to find traffic backed up. The reason was cars coming in and out of the The Black Horse Inn, a restaurant at the central crossroads that has been in business since 1749. I had forgotten it was Valentine’s Day. Apparently the day is alive and well locally at least. Spending was up substantially this year on gifts and entertainment for the holiday according to MarketWatch, yet fewer people accounted for it. They are enough to have crowded upscale restaurants, it seems, but the number of over-18s who did anything to celebrate the day nonetheless was down 20% from a decade ago, with the biggest drop-off in the 18-35 range. Some 5% in that age group planned (with characteristic irony) anti-valentine activities.
This follows the general trend in the population toward lifetime singlehood and away from forming couples – and also from having children. The extent to which this is true is masked by the 80/20 split which characterizes some much of culture and life. (See Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It by Richard Reeves.) The culture in traditional media is dominated by the upper 20%, and this class still marries at much the same rate as a half century ago. For everyone else the rate has fallen off a cliff – and not just for marriage but for romantic relationships of any kind. Singles are a majority of the US adult population and many young people express no interest in ever being anything else. Unsurprisingly, the fertility rate keeps dropping. One doesn’t need to be married to have children, of course (40% of US births are out of wedlock), but single people tend to have fewer. In 2019 the US fertility rate declined to 1.7, its lowest level ever. While this is actually relatively high by first world standards, it is well below the 2.1 necessary to maintain a stable population without net immigration.
For those who might think the fertility decline stems from insufficient social supports for parents in the US, countries that have them (e.g. the Nordic bloc) have even lower fertility rates. Finland, for example, has 105-day maternity leaves (fathers get 54 days) during which the Finnish Social Security agency pays a maternity allowance. Parental leave (albeit unpaid) with job security lasts another 158 days. There are daycare subsidies and a child home care allowance. Finalnd ranks fourth globally (after three Scandinavian countries) in gender equality. Yet, Finland’s fertility rate is 1.3. Apparently, something else is influencing these personal decisions.
The global fertility rate, by the way, is 2.4. This is half what the rate was 60 years ago, but it is still enough to keep global population rising from 7.8 billion today to 8.5 billion by 2030 – an increase about equal to the entire world’s population in 1800. If all this discussion of population, seems a digression from Valentine’s Day, it is. But sort of not. The thoughts were stirred up by recently reading two books with similar titles but different emphases. Both are worth a look.
The Human Tide: How Populations Shaped the Modern World by Paul Morland describes the ways birth rates, death rates, migrations of people and peoples, and sometimes unpyramid-like population age pyramids shape history and politics. Some information is on a grand scale, some on a small (e.g. “Life expectancy for men in Glasgow is lower than for men in Gaza”), and much is in between. Demographics may not be destiny, but all else equal they very nearly are. The rise and fall of civilizations over the millennia are intimately tied to the size and distribution of their people.
A profound change in human affairs began a little over two centuries ago. Whereas populations once expanded and contracted in accord with war, disease, political (in)stability, and natural conditions, the industrial revolution broke humans out of the Malthusian trap, first in Europe and then sequentially in other parts of the world. Always there is a population explosion followed by a drop in fertility. There are occasional anomalies (e.g. the Baby Boom, which interrupted an early 20th century fertility decline) but these are short-term responses to unusual circumstances (e.g. Depression and World War). A few countries (Russia and Japan among them) already are contracting in absolute terms. Others are still rising (but aging) due to ongoing reductions in the death rate but will contract in the near future. Replacement of contracting traditional populations by migration will prevent declines is some places, but this is not without social stress. Demographics are reshaping cultures and global power accordingly.
The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall by Mark W. Moffett covers some of the same ground but with another perspective, He is particularly interested in the origins of division and unity, peace and conflict. Moffett ties human psychology (especially the us-versus-them dichotomy) to animal behavior, including (but not limited to) that of chimpanzees and bonobos. Although conflict tends to grab our attention, Moffett reminds us that humans have a remarkably peaceful tolerance of strangers. You cannot put 500 strange chimps together in a theater without a riot, but humans do this without a thought. Yet, we engage in grand scale warfare (much of it civil) beyond the imagination of our anthropoid cousins. Moffett tells us that ethnicity and other forms of tribalism matter, not because of any biological basis they might have but simply because people themselves believe in them with consequent identity politics that are sometimes benign and occasionally murderous. Moffett, like Morland, notes modern fertility decline but, also like Morland, can identify the conditions under which it occurs but not offer an explanation as such.
Perhaps there is no use overthinking it. It’s enough to say that above a certain level of economic and personal independence, more people choose maintaining that freedom and independence over having a large family – or even a romantic partner. As for those still seeking the latter, sometimes it works out. Sometimes not.
An Anti-Valentine Tune:
Puddle of Mudd – She Hates Me