The Future of Family Values

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” – Matthew 5:5

After centuries of a world whose population was about equal to today’s United States, humanity in the middle of the 18th century began to expand. People weren’t having more children, but advances in medicine and food production were saving millions of infant lives, and a new industrial economy was beginning to support far more humans than before.

Two hundred years later, a new demographic reality emerged, as human birth rates began to fall in step with increasing human development. Today, the world fertility rate is 2.4–that is, the average woman on earth right now will give birth to two or three children in her lifetime–about half as many as she would have fifty years ago. If the UN’s historically correct low variant population predictions are right, the world’s population will be the same in 2085 as it is today, after peaking around 2050.

This decline, which is unprecedented in a few ways, has had an odd juxtaposition with a resurgence in Malthusian thinking. The world fertility rate began falling in the late 1960s. Around the same time, writers like Paul Ehrlich began to worry that the world couldn’t hold many more than the three or four billion people alive at the time, and that famines and wars would soon devastate modern civilization. The fear spread, even though the science was faulty, the economics naive and the predictions very wrong. The paranoia that humanity would soon outgrow its world, accompanied by an anti-natalist attitude, survives into this millennium, even while birth rates continue dropping around the world.

The story behind this general feeling is probably not one of honest scholarship. Demographers and scientists have observed that economic growth accompanies population growth, that there is more food per person than at any point in history, and that huge efficiency gains in many areas mean that the world can support even more than the 9 or 10 billion at which the world’s population will peak. While there are many reasons for dropping fertility rates, the story of the new attitude toward children is one of values.

I don’t think anyone could really have imagined in 1750, as modernity newly lit the world, that anyone other than ascetics would intentionally avoid having children. Fruitfulness was one thing to which the moral structure of almost every old society had pointed; whether in the West or East. It would surprise our ancestors to see a growing movement of people who support laws that would restrict women from having more than a few kids, or who see children as impediments to an independent and fulfilling lifestyle.

As someone who has had the now uncommon experience of having five siblings, I feel like my values surrounding children, birth or maybe life in general, are very distant from the popular ones. It’s easy to feel like I’m speaking another language–I find myself confused at the confusion caused when I tell my peers that my plans for the future are to get married and have kids. The culture of many twenty-somethings is one where kids are foreign creatures, marriage is an abstraction, and pregnancy is a plot point in a sexual narrative. My most cherished memories in life involve the time spent with siblings and cousins; I wonder if the fragmented individualism of the society we live in has started to strip away these most basic of human feelings.

Nevertheless, I think the future is bright. There is new, early evidence that societies that get to a high enough level of human development see rises in their fertility rate. Whether or not this is really the case, it is clear that the people who will be around in a few generations will be the descendants of those among us who value children enough to have them. If there is any heritage, biological or cultural, that parents pass down to children, it can never be a heritage of not having children–childlessness is not hereditary. When the misanthropy of our generation inevitably strangles itself, the earth will be the inheritance of the rest.

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