Monday, December 3, 2012


The US birthrate was in the news last week. It has fallen to 63.2 per 1000 women, which equates to a fertility rate (the average number of lifetime births per woman) of 1.9, which is the lowest since national records have been kept and about half the rate of the peak year 1957. A fertility rate of 2.1 is replacement level, so at the current rate the national population would decline were it not for immigration.

The US is not alone. Several countries with advanced economies have rates that are even lower (e.g. Canada 1.5, Italy 1.4, Japan 1.3, among others), though global population goes on burgeoning thanks to continuing high birthrates in the countries that can least afford them.

There are economic consequences that worry policymakers. Even with immigration, the decline in the US birthrate and the steady drop in adult workforce participation (presently 63.8% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 66.6% a decade ago) bode ill for federal and state budgets, all of which count on wildly unrealistic expectations of growth in the number and incomes of employed taxpayers to meet entitlement and pension commitments.

Editorials last week proffered several explanations for the decline, with the ongoing economic malaise in the US always figuring prominently. The problem with that explanation is that the decline in the birthrate started decades ago. It has persisted through good times and bad. While the dip below 2.0 this year was attention-getting, it wasn’t any deviation from the long term trend. Nonetheless, I’m sure economic factors play a part, but they play a part that won’t change much even if GDP perks up. The fact is that raising kids in the US is insanely expensive, and it’s getting worse. According to the USDA (I don’t know why the Department of Agriculture tracks this, but it does), the average cost of a child born in 2011 (in constant dollars) is $235,000 for the first 17 years, which means before college. Upper income households will spend $390,000. And what of college or other higher education? In real terms it costs triple what it did 50 years ago.

There is another reason for the change, though, that might be even more important. The average age of first marriage is the highest on record (27 for women, 29 for men) – and that is for those who get married at all. The majority of adults are presently unmarried. Over half of adults under 35 never have been married and half of those express no interest in ever becoming so. Marriage is not a prerequisite for having kids, of course; more than a third of births in the US are to single moms after all, which actually is a low fraction compared to some European countries. However, the added difficulties of raising kids alone surely discourage having a lot of them. Furthermore, those married couples tend not to remain couples, often breaking up before starting a family.

I certainly saw some of this at my Thanksgiving table (admittedly an unscientific sample). As I mentioned in an earlier blog, all of the dozen, ranging from young adults to 81, were single: never-married, divorced, or widowed. Four of them were parents, but all of their kids together were outnumbered by those over the age of 35 present at the table. Only one person of any age was altogether positive about a previous marriage or primary relationship. All the others had disaster stories of varying scariness, often laced with negative self-judgments. One fellow remarked, “Guys are such idiots,” referring to his own folly in romantic matters. A lady guest (who hadn’t heard him) not more than 10 minutes later said, “women are such dopes,” while discussing a philandering ex-beau.

Nor is this just an American phenomenon. In a story about virtual reality games, for instance, one fellow commented to Japanese 2channel, “I don’t like real women. They're too picky nowadays. I'd much rather have a virtual girlfriend." A female Tokyo fashion editor agreed in gender-reversed fashion to The Guardian: "Maybe we're just advanced human beings. Maybe we’ve learned how to service ourselves.”

There always has been a battle of the sexes. It always has been a staple of popular culture. (Let’s leave the likes of Aristophanes and Shakespeare aside, though it would be easy enough to go there.) It’s hard to find a more mutually sadistic couple than Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946), for example, as they relentlessly get at each other for unspecified past wrongs. Yet I can’t help noticing a change in tone which kicked in after the ‘70s: a rising expectation that that romance means letting oneself in for emotional abuse – e.g. Joan Jett I Hate Myself for Loving You. Clearly, everyone doesn’t feel this way or there wouldn’t be a next generation, but I really do hear a lot along this line from both sexes.

Perhaps there is something positive to this rising cynicism, if cynicism is what it is. It really is better to be single than to be with the wrong person, and smashing our rose-colored glasses might help us distinguish the wrong ones. If another consequence is giving politicians fewer taxpayer pockets to raid, perhaps that is for the best, too. They might have to consider spending within our means, though that may be too much for which to hope.

The Offspring’s Global Hit in the 90s Apparently Struck a Chord



  1. Yeah I think it is too much to hope that they will spend within our means.

    I loved your quotes from Japan. It doesn't surprise me in the least. They have been obsessed with the virtual idol for a long time now. At least the early 90s, (which is when I first saw an anime that featured one), but there have been plenty since.

    Not to mention the whole "magical girlfriend/boyfriend" genre which has been going strong since the 70s. These magical partners are often portrayed as nearly perfect next to the annoying and sometimes evil normal folks around them. Or you get the twist where the magical partner is outlandish and fun, while the rest of the normal love interests are boring and dull.

    1. Call me an old-fashioned guy, but a virtual partner doesn't do it for me. There is no romance in that. I want a real plastic and wire robot: