Ross Douthat wrote a column last Sunday on the recent decline in US birthrates that started out by observing that pro-family policies in places like Sweden and France lead to more births, a point that earned numerous cross-aisle plaudits from lefties. He then finished by arguing that lower birthrates are also in part “a symptom of late-modern exhaustion—a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe.”
That last point has earned him a week’s worth of guff. Demographers explained that Mr Douthat’s premise is misleading, and that total fertility rates may not have fallen: the decline in “birthrates” is in large part due the fact that women in their early 20s are having fewer babies while women in their late 30s are having more than ever before, and that there happens to be a demographic trough of women in their late 30s right now, so we’re seeing fewer births. Feminists argued that calling for women to have more children, over and against their expressed preferences for fewer children, means treating them not entirely as fully responsible agents, and at least in part as brood sows.
More or less everyone has pointed out that lower birthrates are the inevitable and universal outcome in societies where women achieve education, prosperity and control over their own lives. As a grace note, Matthew Yglesias writes that based on recent indie-rock lyrics, what hip young women seem to want isn’t to live the life of a carefree, bohemian wastrel; it’s to have a well-paid and respected job, which just doesn’t seem very “decadent”.