| NEW YORK
NEW YORK Dec 6 Which is the more powerful agent
of social change: fear or sympathy? Women in rich and
middle-income countries may soon find themselves enrolled in a
real-life experiment testing this proposition. That is because
birthrates are dropping in much of the world. Demographics may
soon rocket to the top of the political agenda, demanding an
entirely new way of thinking about women and motherhood and the
One reason for the shift was, as it were, born in the USA.
That is because, for a long time, the United States has watched
declining birthrates in places like Western Europe, Russia and
even China with an air of superiority. The United States, lusty
and fertile, was bucking the demographic trends.
Then, last week, new data showed that in 2011 the U.S.
birthrate fell to the lowest level ever recorded: 63.2 babies
per 1,000 women of childbearing age.
Crucially, immigrant women, whose fecundity had been holding
up the U.S. figures, opted out of the maternity ward in the
greatest numbers. According to analysis done by the Pew Research
Center, the birthrate for women born in the United States fell
by 6 percent between 2007 and 2010. For foreign-born women in
the United States, the drop was 14 percent. Among Mexican
immigrant women, the rate plunged 23 percent.
This is a big change for the United States, bringing the
birthrate in the country more closely in line with those of the
rest of the developed world. The total fertility rate in the
United States, a measure of the total number of children the
average woman is likely to have, was 1.89 in 2011.
A recent study led by Joel Kotkin for the Civil Service
College of Singapore found that the U.S. rate was edging toward
European numbers: 1.54 for Greece, 1.48 for Italy and 1.5 for
Spain. In rich Asian countries, including Japan and Singapore,
the rate has fallen even more sharply. Even in many
middle-income and poor countries, the level has fallen below the
replacement rate of 2.1 - to 1.89 in Vietnam and 1.9 in Brazil.
These figures, particularly the recent decline in the United
States, have prompted a chorus of cultural lamentation.
Kotkin, for example, sees the falling birthrate as the
central feature of what he calls "post-familialism," a new form
of social organization that prizes liberation, personal
happiness and perhaps even a "hip" urban aesthetic over the more
traditional values of community and self-sacrifice.
This cultural critique - made, not accidentally, mostly by
men - misses the central fact about falling birthrates. They
are, above all, driven by decisions by women. And, in the
countries where we have seen birthrates drop, they are about
decisions driven by women who face three defining facts.
First, women have the historically unprecedented power to
control their own fertility.
Second, the old close-knit family and community ties that
once supported child rearing have been severed by
industrialization and urbanization, and not much has emerged to
take their place.
Third, women's economic circumstances have been transformed.
Women in countries where birthrates have fallen tend to be
richer than were previous generations with higher birthrates or
their sisters in countries where the birthrate is still high.
But that shift masks some other important characteristics in the
life of the middle-class woman in middle- and high-income
She is more likely than ever to work - and to need to work
to maintain her family's middle-class status. 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 to ensure his or her future
success. And, particularly in Europe and the United States,
family income has probably stagnated or increased only
marginally over the past decade, and certainly since the recent
It is tempting, particularly if you happen to be an affluent
man, 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
But the truth is that for most women, children are the most
delightful and luxurious of consumer goods. (Full disclosure: I
am the mother of three.) They are, however, expensive, both in
terms of time and in terms of money, and more and more women in
middle-income and upper-income societies are judging, with
considerable sadness, that they simply 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
modern society. That has often been dismissed as a "women's
issue." So we have not addressed it - and now women are voting
with their wombs.
Before long, we will collectively begin to appreciate that
the future of our societies, and indeed of humanity itself,
depends on finding a better, collective solution to this