While the COVID pandemic is still front and centre in our headlines, there’s another pandemic sweeping across our globe.
This other pandemic is leading to economic downturns and a lonelier, more isolated society. If left unaddressed, it will also lead to a massive population decline across most of the developed world.
What is this other pandemic?
While works of dystopian fiction such as depict a dark future of unwanted infertility, this pandemic is childlessness by choice.
While works of dystopian fiction such as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Children of Men depict a dark future of unwanted infertility, this pandemic is childlessness by choice. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ross Douthat explains in his recent book, ‘The Decadent Society—How We Became Victims of Our Own Success’:
[A]mid all of our society’s material plenty, one resource is conspicuously scarce. That resource is babies.
There is variation from country to country, culture to culture, but below-replacement fertility is the fundamental fact of civilised life in the early twenty-first century.'
Here’s what this means:
Fertility Rates In Developed Countries Are Below Replacement Levels
Developed societies are not having enough babies to replace the people who die.
Developed societies are not having enough babies to replace the people who die … the consequences are not good.
To replace itself from generation to generation, a society needs to average 2.1 births per woman. Across the European Union in 2016, the average was 1.6 children per woman. In Japan, it was 1.41; South Korea, 1.25; China, 1.6; Singapore, 0.82. In Canada, it was 1.6; in Australia, 1.77. The American fertility rate was (by these standards) relatively robust at 1.87.
While recent immigrants to developed countries tend to have higher-than-average fertility, the offspring’s fertility converges fairly quickly with the native-born. In fact, aside from Israel, there is no rich country in the world whose population would not, absent immigration, be on track to shrink.
A shrinking population might sound good to some who are concerned about humanity’s impact on the environment, but the consequences of this population decline are not good …
What to Expect When No One’s Expecting
Some people may think a shrinking population is a good thing. Sir David Attenborough, for example, believes that humanity is a plague on the planet. But here’s the reality facing humanity: by 2100, 90 countries are expected to lose population. Using the example of Japan, author and journalist Jonathan V. Last points out:
If Japan’s fertility rate were to rebound this afternoon and suddenly be at the replacement level and then stay at the replacement level for the next 80 years, they would only lose 28 percent of their total population over that period…Imagine losing one out of every four people around you. Now if, on the other hand, the fertility rate was to stay where it is now, they’re going to lose close to 60 percent of their total population before the end of this century.’
While Japan is a more dire example of population decline (they now sell more adult nappies than baby nappies ), the rest of the developed world is not far behind.
The Thinning Family Tree
Moreover, there are other negative consequences for such demographic decline, including a thinning family tree. This means more loneliness, especially as people enter old age. As Douthat points out:
The grim social indicators of the last twenty years in America, the rising suicide rates and addiction trends and ‘deaths of despair’ are often worst among the late-middle-aged and early-elderly—especially among older and divorced men, who seem unable to confront the prospect of decades of post familial existence.
The human cost is massive. It’s like watching a train smash in slow motion
And there is also the grim prospect of economic decline. As societies fail to produce younger workers—people who are more dynamic and take economic risks that older workers don’t—GDP starts to slow, and then starts to contract. Living standards drop—not least for older people who rely on government pensions and super to live.
Demographic decline might sound like a positive solution to environmental challenges, but the human cost is massive. It’s like watching a train smash in slow motion—and we’re yet to see exactly where it all leads.
Why Might This Be Happening?
The urgent question facing our society is why this might be happening: why is there a demographic decline, and why is the decline to such low levels? Douthat lists a number of suspects:
- The plunging infant mortality rates of the 20th century reduced the incentive to have the largest family possible;
- A shift away from an agrarian-based economy reduced the economic incentive to have more kids;
- Birth Control meant less accidental pregnancies;
- Feminism and its impact on the workplace gave an economic incentive to delay childbirth as long as possible;
- The welfare society lessened the need for kids to look after you into old age;
- Consumer goods and services gave attractive alternatives for many under 45’s;
No doubt these all have their part to play. Technological change can and does change the way we view the world, which then leads to social changes—what Christian commentator Os Guinness calls the ‘Sociology of Knowledge’.
But there’s more to the story.
The Sexual Revolution and the Rise of Authenticity
The drop in children coincided with the sexual revolution and the rise of the age of authenticity. People reacted to the social revolutions of the 1960’s first by marrying less and divorcing more and having fewer children, more of whom were born outside of wedlock, and then eventually marrying much less, having fewer children, and even—in trends from the last two decades—having less sex. The correlation is clear.
But the 1960’s also ushered in the age of authenticity, which radically changed the way people saw themselves and found meaning in life. In earlier ages, personal meaning was something tightly bound up with external structures such as family, church, or nation. Your identity and purpose were something given to you by identifying closely with these structures. But with the rise of authenticity, meaning came to be something you found within yourself. And so, structures like family and children came to be seen as potential hindrances to personal authenticity: children, more than anything else, impede your personal freedom to be who you feel you should be.
With personal authenticity being the gospel of our modern secular age, it’s no wonder children are seen as optional extras to people’s lives.
And this is where religiosity makes a difference:
Religiosity and Fertility
While drinking from the secular well of authenticity correlates to fewer children, religiosity leads to more children. As Douthat points out:
Religious practice correlates with higher fertility within most societies, and conservative religious practice correlates especially … evangelical Christians have more kids than both atheists and more liberal sorts of Protestants … and the most child-free cities in the West are generally places associated with a maximalist social liberalism—San Francisco, Stockholm, Seattle.’
This finding shouldn’t surprise us. The Bible is very pro-fertility: children are a blessing from the Lord (e.g. Psalm 127:3-5), whereas infertility is a part of the curse. While Christians aren’t immune from drinking from the well of personal authenticity, regular church attendance seems to minimise its impact—certainly when it comes to fertility. Sure, Christian parents still struggle at times (often!), and find children challenging, but on the whole, we see kids not as hindrances to our self-actualisation, but as enormous blessings of a generous God.
Holding out the Hope of an Eternal Family
In this age of growing childlessness, with all its accompanying problems, churches have an enormous opportunity to bless our neighbours. Not only can we be places where children are born and celebrated as blessings from God, but we can welcome the increasing numbers of lonely people into our church communities. We can help people taste the goodness of families—and most importantly, invite people to join God’s eternal family: a family that will one day gather together—millions of brothers and sisters worshipping our great God (Rev 7:9-17). And all this in a world without isolation. Or loneliness.
 Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society—How We Became Victims of Our Own Success (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020).
 Douthat, The Decadent Society, 49-50.
 Douthat, The Decadent Society, 50.
 Douthat, The Decadent Society, 50.
 Douthat, The Decadent Society, 60.
 Assuming this trend remains, of course.
 Douthat, The Decadent Society, 50-51.
 Douthat, 55.
 Douthat, The Decadent Society, 53.