"And in the long term," wrote Jeff Wise recently in Slate, "on the order of centuries — we could be looking at the literal extinction of humanity." That is, if fertility rates worldwide settled at the 1.5 percent currently common in Europe, by 2300 the world's population would fall to 1 billion.
The imbalance between raising the next generation and caring for the last creates perverse incentives, Phillip Longman argued in 2004. "As modern societies demand more and more investment in human capital," Longman said, "this demand threatens its own supply."
Valerie Hudson cites one radical answer to the burden of caring for the childless, a proposal first offered by Shirley Burggraf, an economist at Florida A&M: "A portion of each child's paycheck," Hudson said, "would go into a fund to pay the future pension benefits of that specific child's parents." This would differ from the current system, which taxes the young to care for for generalized elder care.
This would, she argues, help balance the costs of raising the next generation of workers — costs that the childless avoid, even as they invest in their own retirement funds.
"When we disconnected financial support for the elderly from reproduction, we pulled the rug out from under the last remaining economic benefit to raising children," Hudson said.
Longman's solutions, less radical than Burggraf's, would shift tax burdens to favor family formation. "Governments should also relieve parents of having to pay into social security systems," he argued. "By raising and educating their children, parents have already contributed hugely to these systems by providing essential human capital. Requiring parents to contribute payroll taxes as well is not only unfair, but also imprudent for societies that are already consuming more human capital than they produce."
Kotkin agrees, but he wants to look at geography as well as finances. Where Eric Klinenberg would make urban singleness more comfortable, Kotkin would favor the suburbs, which he calls the "nurseries of nations."
"High density is the death of demographic growth," Kotkin said "In America, England, France and Japan, the more you force people into higher density, the more they simply don't have kids. Lack of space is huge factor."
"As long as the suburban alternative is affordable, your birth rate has a chance," Kotkin said. "America's advantage is immigration, space and relative affordability."
While recognizing geography and economics, Brad Wilcox doubts much can be done without a shift in culture and values.
Back and forth
In Los Angeles, Seth Toedter still thinks about having kids before he's done, but he recognizes that the window is closing. "It's an ideal I've always had," Toedter said, "but now that I'm faced with it, I have to consider all the practical implications of taking a leap like that."
"It's a back-and-forth thing," he said. "I feel the pressure, but I see it two ways. I see the enormous amount of responsibility it would take, and time, and money." And possible negatives haunt him. "What if it's a problem child? What if tragedy strikes?"
In part, Toedter thinks he has just not yet met his soulmate. "I always said that if I met the right person I would jump into all of that kind of stuff, no problem."
Toedter recognizes that at 38 the fertility window is closing for him and his dating pool. "I have friends who are maybe a year or two older than me who Internet date, and they talk about how they have a very small window they are operating with now, and how they can't afford to be too choosy."
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