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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tom Flynn on declining fertility rates

Tom Flynn has a post in praise of declining fertility rates on the CFI blog.

I agree. From experience to date, we can expect continued declines in fertility wherever we see industrialisation and the availability of reliable contraception (though there may be a few ups and downs, as with some movement upward in Scandinavia recently). Thus, as traditional societies adopt modern forms of technology, infrastructure and business practice, they will have the same general experience with declining fertility as more industrialised nations such as Japan and the nations of Europe (not to mention Australia). This trend will eventually mitigate and begin to reverse the continuing develping-world population explosion.

Leaving aside the volatile situation in much of Africa, and bracketing off any catastrophic effects from global warming, we can expect to see the entire world modernising through the coming decades. We can project that our planet's human population will stabilise, as all continents undergo the demographic transition. Current projections suggest that Earth's human population should peak about the middle of this century and possibly even decrease thereafter.

At the same time, people will live longer. The net result will be societies in which proportionally more people will be found in older age groups, compared with past experience, and there will be proportionally fewer children, teenagers, and young adults. A smaller proportion of people than now will fit into the age ranges that currently make up the bulk of the workforce, but that is not a cause for alarm.

The changes we're seeing stem from altered technological and economic conditions that liberate people to live non-traditional lifestyles and tailor their own unique life plans. Large and increasing numbers of people will find this attractive, even if there is always a sizeable component who find satisfaction in more traditional ways of life that emphasise parenthood.

Attempting to reverse the current tendency would require curtailing individual liberty or producing some kind of cultural change that undermines the attractive idea of personal choice in sexual relationships and family formation. In my view, therefore, any public policy response based on resistance to declining fertility rates would be doomed to failure.

More importantly, I do not agree with the frequent assumption that the changes are undesirable. First, they are the outcome of a desirable development: the economic, technological and social changes that have given people greater liberty to control their own fertility. Ultimately, they will also lead desirable outcomes. Since there is an eventual limit to the carrying capacity of each of the world's continents, the demographic transition should be welcomed. Rather than bemoaning the situation, we should take comfort that the world's population will stabilise, and hope that this happens quickly enough in the developing world to prevent environmental and social disaster.

A world in which population has stabilised, and perhaps even begun to decline, will be more prosperous and environmentally sustainable, and (most likely) more peaceful. As the world's societies modernise, there may be less diversity among them, but there will be far more diversity and choice available within each of them, which is what matters from the viewpoint of individuals. People will be more free to pursue their own unique interests, rather than concentrating their efforts on traditional patterns of family formation. I believe that we should be encouraging that world into being, not wasting our efforts in trying to resist it.

It will begin with the voluntary behaviour of adults in the most advanced countries, and we should not be dismayed as it becomes the norm in most parts of the world. If the tendency becomes so powerful that the survival of the species is threatened at some distant time, let the problem be solved then. Meanwhile, people who consciously choose to have few or no children should be respected for taking control of this aspect of their lives and being in the vanguard of a much-needed global change, not thought of as "selfish" or strange, or as somehow harming their particular societies.

This is not to claim that societies experiencing lower fertility need make no social or economic adjustments. Affected societies, will need to ensure that older people are capable of making their full social and economic contribution. This will require serious legal steps to combat age discrimination by government bodies and corporations. Hopefully, this will be accompanied by cultural change to ensure that the abilities of older people are acknowledged and respected. In the future, there will doubtless be a far greater range of individual choices about when to cease participation in the workforce, with some people staying on into what was once considered old age (though others will retire "early" from full-time work).

The argument that we should fear such a scenario is based on stereotypes about the supposed lack of creativity, energy and productivity of older people. I expect that older people will have more and more opportunities to display those qualities, as our society develops - and they (at my end this is increasingly "we") will surprise the pessimists.

There may be some serious transitional difficulties. Outmoded attitudes to older people may not change as quickly as desirable, nor may the attitudes of those people themselves, some of whom may not welcome an increasing social expectation that they continue to be productive into their later years. This may influence many policy deliberations.

Still, one point stands out. We should adopt a mindset of embracing the future rather than resisting it. It is pointless suggesting more and more ways to cajole people out of exercising their freedom to put less emphasis on childbearing and rearing. If, for example, we favour policies such as paid maternity leave, our support should be based squarely on arguments relating to the interests of women. The arguments should be about increasing the practical autonomy of those women who choose to become mothers, and particularly their ability to care for their children. They should not be based on a supposed need to increase the fertility rate.

Fertility rates will probably get even lower. So be it. This will create policy challenges, but it is not a tendency that must be reversed by moral exhortations or government actions. On the contrary, despite the policy challenges that it creates, it is the sign of free societies and essentially a development that we should welcome.

***

(This material is based on an article published in Quadrant a few years ago now - edited down, and slightly reworked for concision and relevancy. Thanks, Tom, for inspiring me to revisit the issue.)

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"From experience to date, we can expect continued declines in fertility wherever we see industrialisation and the availability of reliable contraception (though there may be a few ups and downs, as with some movement upward in Scandinavia recently). Thus, as traditional societies adopt modern forms of technology, infrastructure and business practice, they will have the same general experience with declining fertility as more industrialised nations such as Japan and the nations of Europe (not to mention Australia)."

How exactly does the above statement lead to the following conclusion?

"This trend will eventually mitigate and begin to reverse the continuing develping-world population explosion."

We will see civilized people self annihilate and be replaced by the uncivilized, and you, allegedly a reasonable person, are cheering this?

I am confused. The uncivilized are not decreasing they are increasing and moving to civilized areas. They are expanding as the uncivilized are decreasing.

Look at the middle east. They were halfway civilized 50 years ago. Now look at them. They have lost ground to militant radical fundamentalist Islam. The secular regimes have fallen and the fertile fundies have taken over. Africa is getting more religious and more populous. Smart people leave those places as fast as they can. The smartest ones have the fewest kids. I don't share your optimism. If the civilized were less fertile and the uncivilized even less, then I could share your enthusiasm. But with psycho fundies growing at an unprecedented rate, as in Egypt, and the civilized advanced countries with birthrates targeting extinction, there are some real bumps ahead before we get to utopia. Lots of fun to come with fundie islamists, their delusions of world domination and their nuclear weapons.

Anonymous said...

" They are expanding as the uncivilized are decreasing."


should read:


The uncivilized are expanding as the civilized are decreasing.

Anonymous said...

The upward movement in Scandanavia is probably due to a high birth rate in the region's Islamic communities, I'd suspect some traditional societies might be more resistant to modernisation than others-perhaps it's too early to tell.

I'd agree that declining fertility rates are not necessarily a problem, so there's no need 'compensate' by adopting a high immigration rate policy.


I'd advocate a 'licence to breed'

RJW.

Russell Blackford said...

Leaving aside the typo, wherever it came from, "as traditional societies they will have the same experience of declining fertility rates" leads quite directly to the claim that the developing-world population explosion will be mitigated and reversed. You may disagree with the premise, but the conclusion follows from it quite directly.

Furthermore, it is inaccurate and even melodramatic to suggest that "civilized people" will "self annihilate" - there is no evidence that any such thing will happen. The populations of Japan, Europe, etc., could many time smaller than they are now while still being at historically high levels. And at relevant points in history those populations were culturally and intellectually innovative. There is no prospect that, at any time during the current policy time frame these nations will end up having "not enough" people.

If your concern is about advanced nations becoming at a military disadvantage because of the lag in modernisation, and hence in the demographic transition, I doubt very much that it will work that way. There are many reasons for that - one is simply that technological advantages far outweigh any advantage from larger population. But there are other reasons, such as the fact that the modernising nations include China and India. These nations don't have ideal societies, of course, but then again does the US or Japan or, say, France.

If your fear is that traditional sub-cultures will outbreed secular people in the Western nations themselves, that's more plausible. It won't happen any time very soon, but it could happen. However, the solution isn't for liberal, secular, etc., people to have more children, thus enslaving ourselves to a way of life that many of us don't want. The solution is to advocate our ideas.