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Sweet Talk is Strong Medicine for Families

Rachel Ferguson

In early December several TikTok videos went viral depicting young couples declaring “we’re DINKs!” That is: Double Income and No Kids. Under that moniker, they were able to list dozens of examples of the freedom and consumption their lifestyle allowed.

This display caused a storm of backlash, leading to comments like “Have fun dying alone” and “I’m sure your extra appetizers and drinks will bring you a lot of fulfillment.” Apparently, not all Americans are ready to embrace the DINK lifestyle. Nevertheless, as Catherine Pakaluk notes in “The Pulse of Natality,” plummeting birth rates in economically developed nations indicate a real shift in commitment to family life. The once-common 5 or 7-child family is now an outlier, with below-replacement numbers the norm. Serious population craters are coming for places like South Korea.

Contrary to the DINKs, I’ll argue that it does matter if population declines. But whether or not pro-natalist fiscal policy could theoretically incentivize people to have more children ends up being a moot point, since we’ll never pass it at the levels required to make it effective. Culture is the final option, and Pakaluk’s arguments about the role of larger families in a life with purpose and meaning are compelling.

Why should we care? The population plateau that came with economic development was in many ways a boon. Under-developed nations that hit five to eight thousand dollars in per capita annual income saw population growth begin to decline, due to the increase in education for females and consequently delayed marriage. Reduced fertility initially meant a higher quality of life all-around and an end to the “population bomb” worries of Paul Ehrlich and his ilk in the 1970s.

But as GDP continued to rise, this shift started to snowball. Many first-world populations began shrinking. There will be clear consequences, such as the inability of the younger generation to sustain entitlements for their elders, including social security and healthcare. Some states have tried to avoid such outcomes by replacing some of their native population with more reproductive immigrants. Leaving aside political and economic tensions linked to high migration, such fixes are at best temporary because the descendants of immigrants tend to adopt the family norms of the society where they live.

But one can’t help asking why we should consider population shrinkage as a bad thing in the long run. After all, if the average family size simply dropped to replacement levels, then even though the transition will be rough, we could hit some sort of equilibrium and do fine from there. After all, we’ve dealt with painful transition periods before, such as moving from agriculture to industry and from industry to the service and information economy. We undid a slew of medieval economic restrictions, huge populations urbanized, and millions moved across the world. So what exactly is the problem with a smaller population?

To begin with, the trend isn’t toward balancing out at replacement rates; it’s toward failing to replace ourselves. Should such a trend continue, the “painful transition” of deflation, economic stagnation, failing infrastructure and unsustainable elder populations will simply become the way of things, getting worse and worse with each passing generation. Anyone who has spent much time in destabilized neighborhoods understands this point. The strange thing isn’t the poverty, but the emptiness: the abandoned and crumbling homes, the empty lots, the boarded-up shops. It’s haunting. Unlike the productive changes I mentioned above, this phenomenon wouldn’t be arising from growth and development, but from de-growth and collapse. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a mere transition, but a downward spiral.

Second, but perhaps more fundamentally, one’s attitude toward a falling population has a lot to do with one’s attitude toward human persons. If persons are seen as inherently valuable beings full of capacities ready to be actualized, we will naturally want as many people on the planet as can have decent lives that allow them to flourish. People, in this view, are the source of solutions, not problems. Growing populations can be just fine as long as innovation is growing right along with them. In fact, this has been the overall experience of the last 200 years.

To continue that result, we need more young people to continue innovating ways to live well, not only by promoting material well-being, but also by rethinking how we can best align our economies and communities with human nature and with the earth. Such phrases are often associated with a de-growth mindset. But it wouldn’t surprise me if remote work, for instance, led to a return to home and local community, easing pressure on marriages and enhancing the relationships that matter far more than employment connections. Instead of arguing with Wendell Berry over whether or not to slice off the top of that mountain for coal, we could be getting most of the energy we need from nuclear power, with very little waste. Innovation does disrupt while improving, but can also improve in ways that address the disruptions.

Even from a purely economic perspective, then, developed nations have to reckon with their attitude toward family life, if only to keep the population up to replacement levels. As Pakaluk points out, the modern conundrum is less about the mere expenses involved in child-rearing than about the opportunity costs for parents. With female incomes at an all-time high, it’s far more of a sacrifice for mom to stay home in order to raise a large brood.  Smaller family sizes might be okay if everyone were marrying and having families. Yet we’ve never been so alone. Thirty eight percent of Americans never marry. More people live alone than ever.

The risks of these changes are social as well as economic. Some of the organic ways that we sustain community are disappearing due to shrinking families. With fewer children, many people lose the experience of having a same-sex or opposite-sex sibling to prepare one for future relationships, or a large gaggle of cousins to provide built-in friendships. A coddled generation could miss the independence fostered by moms and dads who don’t have the bandwidth to be overly-focused on them. As they grow up, they may also miss the maturation process that occurs when young parents are forced to work hard for the sake of someone other than themselves. I’m going to go out on a limb and argue these failures of development are especially common among men, who are currently experiencing a crisis of hopelessness, addiction, and suicide.

So what can be done? Pakaluk rejects pro-natalist policies, which she claims do not work since they can never make up for the economic gains parents must sacrifice to have children. Family policy expert Lyman Stone begs to differ. Stone argues that a child benefit of 1% of child-rearing costs raises fertility about 1%. Estimating those costs at around $1 million, he considers a baby bonus of $300,000. If the math is right, that could raise the US fertility rate from about 1.66, where it currently stands to somewhere between 2 and 2.22—that is, slightly over replacement. It would also cost the about $1 trillion per year.

The long-term benefits, Stone argues, would be absolutely worth it. But the sticker shock makes such a policy politically non-viable. That doesn’t mean nothing can realistically be done. Stone distinguishes fiscal incentives from pro-natalist cultural policy. Cultural policy could include things like speeding up career paths so that women stop delaying childbirth for so long, such as lowering occupational licensing barriers.

My guess is that Pakaluk would be happy to consider policies that she would already favor for other reasons, but would reject those, such as forced retirement to draw younger people into their careers sooner, that overstep the bounds of appropriate government intervention. But even if she were willing to grant Stone all the cultural policies he mentions, even Stone agrees that it probably won’t work. Cultural policies require a fiscal nudge to be successful and, in all likelihood, we can’t convince our fellow citizens to pay what would be necessary. So in the end, we’re back to plain old culture.

We shouldn’t treat culture as matter of abstract rules. Pakaluk’s interviews with the mothers of large families resonate strongly with me on a personal level. I, too, experienced a deep self-integration through motherhood. As a woman in a field (philosophy) that is 83% male, I may be an outlier. But I was stunned by the coherence that childbirth created between my mind and body. Whether as a survivor of a few different forms of trauma, an overly-analytical person, or perhaps just a human, I often felt and operated as a sort of ‘floating brain,’ so disconnected from my body that I couldn’t even tell the chiropractor where my back was hurting. Using the Bradley method to prepare for a homebirth, I learned to use my mind to relax my muscles and create a kind of Zen state. After using this technique in first stage labor in a small pool, I pushed on all fours for an hour and a half to deliver my son, Asher, on my bed. It’s difficult to convey to another human being how incredibly powerful that event was for the sense that my body is also part of what it is to be me. The exhilaration was so intense that, after all that hard work, I could hardly sleep that night! I was forever changed.

For many women in my own situation, though, having children wouldn’t have been considered wise. I was in a PhD program and had yet to complete my dissertation. I’d be on the job market soon. It made no sense. But raised as an evangelical Christian and deepening my commitment to my faith with each passing year, the possibility of being married for longer than five years without starting a family was unthinkable. Life would work itself out, and I was not overly ambitious. While my career was meaningful to me it would have felt meaningless without a family. And part of my desire to be in teaching in the first place included the flexible schedule and summers off in order to spend as much time as possible with my children. Solomon came soon after and I was so proud of myself that I wanted to parade him up and down the street! The same feeling came with nursing, which only solidified the sense that I was built to build others, physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

Lest we stray into “their sweet faces on the pillow” paeans to motherhood, I am no less empowered by the experience of raising gangly, moody teenage sons. In spite of my job, I pulled them out of public school during the pandemic and handed them piles of books. We debated the content, recorded podcasts, and had hours-long conversations on a regular basis. My enjoyment of a lifetime of lectures on Plato’s Republic could not compare to my son’s gratitude to me last Sunday when a conversation we’ve had many times about how to live well finally broke through and made sense to him. As Aristotle argues against Plato’s rejection of the private family, it means so much to say “mine” when it comes to love. It’s better to be somebody’s actual cousin than a son in Plato’s city-family. As great as it is to have a revelatory moment with a student, my son belongs to me. Therefore, his breakthrough is vastly more precious to me. The love between us is profound.

I take Pakaluk’s point to be that our salvation from the population crater may be something akin to Dierdre McCloskey’s “sweet talk,” which she explains in a book with the subtitle, “why economics can’t explain the modern world.” Even with all the necessary institutions in place, the Great Enrichment would not explode until we began to acknowledge the value of the business calling, the gift of the entrepreneur, the nobility of the mere merchant. We needed to tell better stories; we needed sweet talk. The same will go for our return to robust families. We’re replacing the modern feminist looking-down-the-nose at motherhood as well as the stereotypical uninvolved, workaholic dad. We’re re-embracing the simpler things in life: fathers wrestling with the kids on the living room floor; a bunch of cousins gathered at the kids’ table; mom, dad, and kids all falling asleep in the big bed at the end of the book chapter. Messy, sacrificial, meaningful, and empowering. Sing, muse, sing, of the beauty of family life!

Rachel Ferguson is the Director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago, Assistant Dean of the College of Business, and Professor of Business Ethics.


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