The birth rate in the United States has now dropped beneath replacement rate, meaning more Americans are dying than are being born. This drop could have disastrous effects for our country, and some experts argue that it stems from a profound shift in society’s attitude towards family life and children.
Alexandra Davis recently explored this topic in an article for Public Discourse, entitled “The Toll of the Dwindling Birth Rate is Far Greater than Under Population.” She joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss her research.
Nearly half of adults aged 18 to 49 responded to a Pew Research study saying they were “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to have children. “I think the numbers are really indicative of a general cultural disdain for family life,” says Davis, “and particularly the traditional nuclear family.”
Davis argues this points to a deeper issue within our culture. “The issue goes beyond just the narrower question of whether or not to have children,” she says. “I see it as it’s really about the ethos that underlies the decisions we’re making, and that specifically is the notion that the highest and greatest good—the summum bonum in our life—is our own personal fulfillment. This ideology has really come to define our generation.”
“Problems can arise when this ideal of personal autonomy is taken a step too far. […] When we turn our backs on things like family life and parenthood—the sort of underlying rationale there that we can’t be bothered to sort of take up the burdens of others— I think it has a very insidious logical conclusion because, outside of the childbearing context, I think it leads to a conclusion that we just can’t be bothered to take care of people.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Alexandra Davis unpack why the declining birth rate in the U.S. points to a deeper cultural issue.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. The United States has now joined the vast majority of developed countries in the unfortunate reality of having a birth rate below replacement level. Even the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, is sounding the alarm about the dangers of such a shift, but the reason for the shift is a mystery. Is it merely a demographic or economic problem, or are there more profound human and societal concerns when a culture so intensely rejects family life and children?
Alexandra Davis, a Raleigh attorney, business owner, and mother recently explored this topic in an article for Public Discourse. It’s entitled “The Toll of the Dwindling Birth Rate is Far Greater than Under Population.” We’re grateful she joins us today to share her thoughts.
Alexandra Davis, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: Thank you so much for having me.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, most conversations about the dwindling birth rate focus on demographics. What are the demographic trends for the U.S. birth rate?
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: There was a study from Pew Research late last year that surveyed a sample of adults aged 18 to 49 about their family planning intentions. And 44%—so almost half of the sample—reported or checked the box that it was “not too likely” or “not at all likely” that they would have children, which was a 7% increase from 2018 just four years ago. Demographers are claiming that the fertility rate needed to sustain our country’s population is 2.1. So that means, Traci, on average couples should have 2.1 children. That’s just the average, and in the U.S. now, the rate is 1.6, which some are claiming is the lowest in history.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You’ve said in your article that the dropping birth rate is not just about demographics, but it’s actually a change in attitude or a “persistent cultural trend” away from family life and childbirth.
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: So, I say it’s a trend because I think the numbers are really indicative of a general cultural disdain for family life and particularly the traditional nuclear family. Traci, there was actually a Time Magazine article published about a decade ago that I read before I wrote this article, and the title was “Having It All Without Having Children.” It was about this phenomenon of millennials opting out of having kids, but they’re making these decisions even before they meet their spouse. They sort of decide, “This isn’t something that I want.” So, the article was sort of an exposé on their justification for that, and notably, it all centered on things like “We want to design our own lives. We want to maintain our own agenda, ascend the highest types of professional achievement, travel, do things kind of the way we want on our terms.” So, I think that the numbers from the polls that you and I just discussed show that this sort of cultural motif is starting to make an impact demographically.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You know, I would agree with you. I have some friends who have a lot of kids, and when I’ll mention how many kids they have to some people, they’ll go, “Oh my goodness, how selfish.” And I’m like, “What an odd response.” And my daughter-in-law, the same thing—when she talks about having a second child, people are like, “Oh, I hope you know what you’re getting into.” There definitely has been a sea change. Do you think there could be a connection between our nation’s history of abortion-on-demand and this trend away from marriage and family? Or is that a stretch?
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: I don’t think it’s a terrible stretch. I think that you can make a compelling argument that this sort of collective turning away from the family stems from the very same root. I think that that root is one that Pope Francis has warned about. He calls it the “throwaway culture,” and it doesn’t just have to relate to abortion; it relates to this general idea that people can get in our way, that they get in our way, in the way of what we want to do. They get in the way of how we want to live our lives. So, I do think that there’s sort of a central ideology that gives rise to a lot of these different attitudes toward the family where kids are an imposition.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Now, you even go as far as to say that this trend denies the core of what it means to even be human.
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: I know that probably sounds a bit dramatic to some, but I want to just be clear, Traci, I’m not arguing this because I think everyone should have seven children or that everyone should have any children or adopt children. Certainly, there are a number of very legitimate reasons that couples opt out. But the reason I say that is because the issue goes beyond just the narrower question of whether or not to have children. I see it as it’s really about the ethos that underlies the decisions we’re making, and that specifically is the notion that the highest and greatest good—the summum bonum in our life—is our own personal fulfillment. This ideology has really come to define our generation. Some argue that it is at the very root of our identity as Americans, right? Our whole nation was founded on the desire of an oppressed people to be independent, and this is very good, arguably; this is a very good thing for all of us who are sitting here right now, but problems can arise when this ideal of personal autonomy is taken a step too far. That’s when we start to sort of subconsciously pull away from other people, from our communities, to view them as enemies in our quest for personal fulfillment. When we start thinking that we don’t need other people to help us live meaningful lives, that we can find meaning by simply turning to the self.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You say that the culture’s focus on individual autonomy doesn’t square with human reality. So you’re saying that that we can’t even continue like this, I guess.
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: Yeah, and you know, it doesn’t square because we were created to live in community. The most fundamental level of community is the nuclear family. So, even for those who don’t have children, there are other people who are just indubitably entrusted to our care: aging parents, a sibling who is ill or struggling financially. I mean, look at the way we begin our lives and end our lives: fully dependent on others. I mean, how many obituaries do you read—not to get morbid here—but so many of them mention that the person passed on surrounded by family and friends, right? Because this means something. And on the opposite end here of life, there’s a reason that the last two years during the pandemic, many women—myself included actually—had to give birth alone without their spouse, without their support person. This was considered sad. I mean, people talked about it like something was lost, even if a healthy baby resulted from it. So, this is for a reason. It’s not good for us to be alone, especially during moments of life and death where the veil gets very thin.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You talk in your article about radical dependence. Why is that so fundamental to human life, beyond just these life and death issues?
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: Absolutely. I think it’s a part of our call to care for the marginalized, the oppressed, the social outcast, the sick, the abandoned in whatever ways we might be called to do so. So, I think that when we turn our backs on things like family life and parenthood—the sort of underlying rationale there that we can’t be bothered to sort of take up the burdens of others— I think it has a very insidious logical conclusion because, outside of the childbearing context, I think it leads to a conclusion that we just can’t be bothered to take care of people. It’s not our problem, and I think that that’s problematic. I think that all of us, in different ways and to different extents, are called or asked to take care of other people, whether they’re in our families or not.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I know you mentioned that you don’t think that everyone needs to have children and certainly not like seven children, but we need to be examining the why even before you have any kids. So talk about that. What are our reasons? What should our reasons be for having children and having a family?
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: I think that children can provide really deep and abiding meaning in our lives. I think that this is not to say that finding meaning is impossible outside of the context of parenthood, but what I’m saying is for those who are able and willing and absent compelling reasons to opt out—of which, as we said, there are many—I think you just have to ask the question that only you can answer: what is the cost of turning your back on it? And I think that the meaning we can derive from stepping into the calling of parenthood—which demands so much of us, so much sacrifice from the physically demanding season of caring for babies and toddlers to the difficult work of the moral formation of young adults and adolescents. This is something that, for those who choose it, is truly a path to sanctification.
One thing that I’ve heard a lot of people say in my generation is, “I don’t feel that it would be responsible; I don’t feel that it would be prudent to have children right now because the world feels exceptionally tumultuous.” Right now, there are very legitimate concerns about the environment and what’s going to happen. There are very legitimate concerns about the political landscape. The list goes on and on and on. What I like to say is, “Yes, this is true, but the world has always been unsettled.” We’ve never truly been promised utopia here on earth. We’ve never been promised perfect stability. A lot of these things seem to be cyclical. The pandemic…some people might argue we were actually due for some radical disruption after relatively calm decades.
But what I say is, while it’s true that the world will always be disrupted and disruptive, having children is an opportunity to create a family, a world, a home that can be a mooring, that can be a safe place, that can be sort of a fertile ground to inculcate values and virtue within a tumultuous world. So, while we don’t have control over the state of the planet, we do have some control over our own homes, and what a gift to be able to bring children into that.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All of this decline in the family and having children, we also see an increase, though, in interest surrounding children, children’s issues, children in school, what are children being taught? Why do you suppose that those things are happening at the same time?
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: I think it’s because we know deep down in our core that children matter. Children really represent a lot of hope for future generations. And I think that that’s why they’ve become a bit of a battleground lately in society and in media, especially when it comes to education.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Could you just address finally what this could mean in a practical way, if our country continues on in this trend?
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: That’s a great question, Traci. While I’m certainly not an expert on the economic side, in my research that I’ve done on this topic, I have learned that economists are very concerned about issues like collapsing population and its effects on how we’re going to pay into things like social security; how we are going to care for the old and the sick in our society. There are simply not enough young people in our society, and certainly in countries like the U.S. and many east Asian countries, some of which—and I can’t remember the exact one so I don’t want to quote this—but I know that there are a few where the average fertility rate is below 1%. That’s problematic because that simply means that the population in those countries will cease to exist. I think that that is very chilling. I think that is very scary, and economists are not saying that this is something that’s 300 years away; some of them are claiming it’s within a few decades.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, Alexandra Davis, where can we go to read this article that you’ve written, “The Toll of the Dwindling Birth Rate is Far Greater than Under Population”?
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: The best place to access this and my other work is just my website, alexandraedavis.com. Again, it’s alexandraedavis.com. There’s a tab there where you can access my recently published articles and essays.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Alexandra Davis, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
ALEXANDRA DAVIS: Thank you so much, Traci, and thank you for all the work that you’re doing.
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