The MercatorNet IdeaFest
Dodos, dinosaurs and declining birth rates

MercatorNet was launched one year ago, on May 27, 2005. To mark our first anniversary, we are inaugurating the annual MercatorNet IdeaFest, a collection of pot-stirring, counter-intuitive, mind-bending essays. We have asked several creative people to answer a single big question: “What big idea of 2006 will be extinct in 2036?” Here is a response from Jennifer Roback Morse


Question: What big idea of 2006 will be extinct in 2036?
Answer: We will be happier and richer if we reduce our birth rate.

Once upon a time, there was an idea that the world was overpopulated. The Population Bomb frightened millions of people into believing that our planet was doomed to destruction from over-population and that we were all doomed to starvation. That idea has already been exploded. New books have titles like The Birth Dearth, The Empty Cradle and simply, Fewer.

What seems to work for an individual doesn’t work for the society as a whole. It seems that having fewer children makes a family wealthier. After all, children are expensive and have no particular economic value to an individual family. When a family says, “we can’t afford another child right now,” this is perfectly intelligible.

But it doesn’t work that way for the society as a whole. Children are not just an expense for the society as a whole. In most modern societies, people are counting on the future earnings of the children of the whole society to pay for their care at retirement. Those children will grow up to be the workers who pay taxes; the nurses who provide their care, the home health aides who visit them, the doctors who perform surgery, the truck drivers who keep food on the shelves.

We have the idea that we are independent. If we are taking care of ourselves financially, we needn’t be concerned about whether we have children or not. If my husband and I are better off by having fewer kids, or no kids, what’s the problem?

The problem is that no one really “takes care of themselves” in a market economy. Everyone is interdependent. And the whole economic system depends on continual inflow of productive workers who produce more than they consume. The social economy depends on having enough prime age workers to produce enough to care for themselves, their personal dependents such as their children and their parents, and still have enough left over to help other people. None of this can happen without some new people being born.

Unfortunately, the modern welfare state has undermined many of the private incentives to have children. The lethargic culture of public assistance drains the enthusiasm of the young for beginning families. State financial support displaces the economic function of marriage, for women and men alike.

Women don’t need a husband to support them if they have a child. Husbands are a nuisance, when the government provides money without the inevitable difficulties of dealing with a flawed human being as a partner. Men dislike the feeling of powerlessness inherent in having the state claim a large fraction of one’s earning power, and then give it back in dribs and drabs. In this environment, children become consumption goods, optional life-style appendages to acquire only if one happens to enjoy children.

Europe is in worse shape than the US in this regard, because most European countries require high wages, short working hours and expensive benefits. These mandates obviously increase the cost of hiring a worker. The productivity of skilled, experienced workers can justify this generous compensation package. But the young are less employable. In the 25 countries of the EU, the unemployment rate for those under 25 hovers just below 20 per cent. The high unemployment rate contributes to the delaying of marriage and child-bearing. According to Pavel Kohout, “An incredible 70 per cent of unmarried Italians between the ages of 25 and 29 live with their parents, where they benefit from subsidised housing and where their poor incomes amount to a handsome pocket money.” Across the European continent, the political classes show no signs of dealing with this problem.

As the idea of over-population becomes obsolete, we will begin to re-examine many of the social attitudes and cultural changes that we have created around delayed child-bearing. We will begin to realise how odd and truly unnatural it is, that we expect young people to spend their years of peak fertility doing anything other than having babies. People create sexual relationships that are not based on the prospect of procreation, but are built on the understanding that pregnancy is something to avoid at all costs.

Imagine asking young people the following question: if you thought your contraceptive method had a fifty percent failure rate, would you be involved with your current partner? For many young people, the answer would be, “no way!” Unfortunately, the attitudes and behaviours they are cultivating with Mr No-Way or Ms Out-of-the-Question will actively undermine their ability to build up life-long married love when they do finally decide to become parents. Studies show that the probability of divorce is correlated both with living together prior to marriage, and with the number of sex partners prior to marriage. And of course, divorce reduces the birth rate even further, as men and women alike are reluctant to bring more children into unstable personal and cultural situations. But we sweep this all under the rug because we think we are having “safe” sex.

Future generations will be amazed that so many women postponed having children for so long. When they read that the richest people in the richest countries the world has ever known, thought they couldn’t afford more children, they will laugh at us. And they will be enjoying many more children and grandchildren, earlier in life than most of us now do.

Dr Jennifer Roback Morse has a doctorate in economics, is the Senior Research Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, and the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World, available at her website, She has written more on this and related topics on the Acton website and her own website.


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  • Jennifer Roback Morse