Which is the more powerful agent of social change: fear or sympathy?
Women may soon find themselves enrolled in an experiment testing this proposition. That is because birthrates are falling.
Demographics may soon rocket to the top of the political agenda, demanding a new way of thinking about women and motherhood and the economy.
Last week, new data showed that in 2011, the US birthrate fell to its lowest ever: 63.2 babies per 1,000 women.
According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, the birthrate for women born in the US fell by 6% between 2007 and 2010. For foreign- born women, it was 14%. Among Mexican immigrant women, it plunged 23%.
A study led by Joel Kotkin for the Civil Service College of Singapore found that the US rate was edging toward European numbers: 1.54 for Greece, 1.48 for Italy and 1.5 for Spain.
Kotkin sees the falling birthrate as the central feature of “post-familialism”, a new form of social organisation that prizes liberation, personal happiness and urban aesthetic over the more traditional values of community and self- sacrifice. But this cultural critique misses the central fact about falling birthrates. They are, above all, driven by decisions by women who face three defining facts. First, women have unprecedented power to control their own fertility. Second, the family and community ties that once supported child rearing have been severed by industrialisation and urbanisation.
Third, women’s economic circumstances have changed. Women in countries where birthrates have fallen tend to be richer than previous generations with higher birthrates or their sisters in countries where the birthrate is high.
But that shift masks some important characteristics in the life of the middle-class woman in middle-and high- income countries. She is more likely than ever to work. She is also more likely to live in a society in which a great deal of time and money must be invested in each child. And, family income has probably stagnated or increased only marginally in the past decade.
It is tempting to frame any choice about childbearing in the lofty language of moral philosophy, to see it as a decision between valuing personal fun in the present over service in the interests of others — one’s children and one’s society — in the future.
But the truth is that for most women, children are the most delightful and luxurious of consumer goods. They are, however, expensive, both in terms of time and in terms of money, and more and more women are judging that they cannot afford to have as many children as they would like.
This is where the question of fear versus sympathy comes in. For decades, feminists have been demanding that we come up with better ways for women to be both mothers and full members of society. That has often been dismissed as a “women’s issue”. We have not addressed it. Now women are voting with their wombs.
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