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September 17, 2014 / 22 Elul, 5774
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How Shrinking Families Are Destroying Our Planet

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My wife was called for jury duty when she was pregnant with our fourth child. Since her due date was looming, her doctor wrote a letter to the court, asking for an exemption. When I went to the courthouse office to deliver the letter, I was taken aback by how long the line was.

It seemed everyone wanted to get out of jury duty.

When my number was called, I proudly explained my wife’s situation to the courthouse clerk. I expected the clerk to coo with delight and maybe wish me mazel tov.

“How can you have four children when the world is overpopulated?” she lectured instead. “You’re a drain on the planet,” she said, citing “pollution” and “carbon footprints” and “limited resources.”

As I walked away, my wife’s exemption safely in hand, I overheard the next woman in line explaining her jury-duty excuse: as a contestant on the reality television show “The Biggest Loser,” she couldn’t miss her only chance for reality television fame and fortune. Not only did she get her exemption, the same clerk who’d admonished me insisted on having her picture taken with this future celebrity. Society’s priorities have certainly shifted.

At the time, I was working on a book to be called The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better. Thanks to my research, I could easily have challenged that clerk’s misapprehensions about population, pollution and parenting. (I wanted my wife’s precious piece of paper too much to risk doing so, however.)

The fact is, throughout the Western world many secular young men and women are doing everything in their prime reproductive years except reproduce. Millions of people are busily going about their lives – shopping, working, watching television – blissfully unaware that the equivalent of a giant asteroid is heading toward Earth, one that seems too far away to matter until it’s too late. That asteroid is called “population bust” and will damage countries like Russia far more than any real-life asteroid.

Never before in human history have birth rates internationally fallen so far and so fast and in so many places. Close to half the planet (including most of Europe, East Asia, and many Central and South American countries) has a fertility rate below replacement. America is barely at maintenance level, and new census data shows our population growth at its lowest level since the Great Depression.

* * * * *

If you’ve been following the demographic news of late, you may be questioning my wisdom or sanity. After all, the world’s overall population is growing. On October 31, 2011, the world witnessed the arrival of the world’s seven billionth person, Danica May Camacho. The UN even flew the world’s six billionth person, Lorrize Mae Guevarra (now twelve years old) to be there for the occasion. According to the United Nations Project, the earth’s population could top ten billion by the end of the 21st century.

Yet, when we drill down, these numbers reveal a disturbing picture. Most of the people who will inhabit the planet in the next twenty years have already been born. This means that medical advances that improve longevity are what is really driving up the world’s population. The so-called population boom is more like a “health boom.” Global life expectancy has doubled, from age thirty in 1900 to sixty-five in the year 2000.

We are aging faster than any functioning society has ever aged. It seems the “Golden Girls” will soon become the only girls. The rapid-aging phenomenon combined with the fertility implosion presents the perfect demographic storm, resulting in a shrinking working-age population and rapidly graying population.

“So what?” you may be asking, especially if you have heard nothing but those overpopulation scare stories your entire life. Won’t the planet be better off with fewer people consuming precious natural resources and creating more pollution in the process? Won’t an under-populated world be a quieter and calmer place – a peaceful, prosperous paradise? Wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able to find parking?

Initially, the answer is yes. Demographers call it a “demographic dividend.” In the early stages of fertility decline, a nation experiences great prosperity. With fewer mouths to feed and an untapped reservoir of female workers, adults have more leisure time and disposable income. As fewer babies are born, more time and resources can be spent on them. Just look at the “tiger parenting” phenomenon in Asian countries, where small families are the norm.

However, over time this demographic dividend needs to be repaid. Fewer babies mean a smaller workforce while at the same time the number of now-dependent elders explodes. The ratio of senior citizens to working-age populations becomes unbalanced. Nobody is left to cover the soaring costs of public pensions and health care.

* * * * *

In the 1960s and ‘70s, America’s baby boomers challenged and changed many social attitudes and in the process forged a fundamental societal shift that remains with us today. Boomers postponed child bearing and experimented with more permissive and freewheeling child rearing when they eventually became parents, and the long-term effects of these decisions are impacting us all. And many of those delayed boomer offspring are experimenting with a profound social change of their own: choosing to have fewer children, having them later, or deciding not to have children at all.

Where, the baby boomers are now asking, are our grandchildren?

Think of this as an opportunity for boomers to take up yet another “cause.” If they’ve finally reached the point where they figure they won’t mind being called “grandpa” or “grandma” after all, they need to make the same compelling argument in favor of parenthood as they once made against it.

Let’s consider some of the top reasons young people give for postponing parenthood, and how to respond to them.

Career: For most couples the real question is not if but when to have children. Studies show that most married couples who say they want to have children will have them – eventually, when they’re “ready.” In the Western world today, however, “ready” takes longer and longer to arrive – or never arrives at all. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Fifty years ago, nearly 75 percent of couples had children within the first three years of marriage. In 2010, only about 25 percent did.

In a 2011 New Yorker article, actress Tina Fey revealed her mixed feelings about having a second child, noting, “Science show[s] that fertility and movie offers drop off steeply for women after forty.” Like many career women whose childbearing years are nearing an end, Fey faced a dilemma that feminism neglected to mention: brute biology trumps ideology as far as fertility is concerned.

Consequences: The college years coincide with the prime female fertility years, and that presents a challenge. Fertility begins to decline at age twenty-seven and plummets at forty. No wonder almost half of women (43 percent) with graduate degrees are childless, whether they wanted to be or not. As my wife can attest, institutions of higher learning don’t make life easy for students with children. (Perhaps the last vestige of discrimination on campus is a bias against parents.)

The older you get, the more set in your ways you become. At that point, making room for children seems almost impossible. You don’t want to give up your comforting routines and spontaneous splurges. In addition, a twenty- or thirty-year-old has reservoirs of physical and mental energy a forty-year-old mother or fifty-year-old dad can only dream of. Because we are now so accustomed to seeing middle-aged movie stars with toddlers in tow, women might think they can put off childbearing indefinitely. Few realize how expensive, uncomfortable, and unreliable in vitro fertilization can be.

Cost: Many people claim they can’t afford to have children, but if we want to maintain our social safety net and standard of living, we can’t afford not to. Without a sizable, stable tax base to fund them and a workforce to manage them, many of America’s entitlement programs will crumble. After all, they were designed on the assumption that birthrates would remain steady; when the United States instituted its Social Security program, twenty workers were paying into the system for every retiree. Today the number of workers is two. The retirement age was pegged at 65 because people in those days, on average, only lived to be 67.

Yes, kids are expensive and the unsustainable cost of yeshiva tuition deserves and has received its own articles. Notwithstanding the cost and time commitment, today’s college graduates are entering a job market that’s almost as grim as that in the 1930s, and are burdened with massive debt. Money is most often cited as the reason couples choose to postpone parenthood, sometimes permanently.

However, when approached from another, more realistic, angle, those dauntingly high aggregate childrearing costs usually cited (a whopping $250,000 per child) aren’t really that scary. We’re just looking through the wrong end of the telescope. After all, we live day to day and year to year, not all at once.

Parenthood compels you to take your finances seriously, maybe for the first time in your life. This is never a bad thing. The fact is, I make more money now than I did before I became a father – in part because I have to! I was obligated to become more industrious.

Children really are cheaper by the dozen, as members of my religious community can attest. Economies of scale kick in. Just because we have four children doesn’t mean we have four of everything. After all, we need only one changing table at a time, and my younger son doesn’t know or care that he’s wearing his older brother’s clothes.

Contentment: America was founded, in part, on the ideal of “the pursuit of happiness.” Two centuries later, however, the pursuit isn’t enough for us. We want guaranteed happiness on demand. The exhausting daily chores and sacrifices that parenthood requires are the last thing we think will help us achieve it. After all, who wants a bunch of time-consuming, noisy, unpredictable children around, interrupting our pursuit of happiness? The studies about parenthood and happiness have it only half right. Yes, parenthood is hard and painful and requires sacrifice. It also provides a level of joy that no other human experience can deliver.

Reveling in my children’s childhood isn’t the same thing as trying to relive my own. Having written a best-selling book about superheroes, I’ve spoken at lots of comic book conventions, and it saddens me to see thousands of grown men and women living vicariously, playing make-believe in their elaborate costumes. Watching men my own age dressed as Jedi knights having light-saber fights in the hotel lobby is funny for a minute or two, but ultimately it’s a little weird. Once again, we see people trading true happiness for temporary comfort, maturity for nostalgia, and true family for a fragile arbitrary “community.”

Carbon footprint: Back in the 1970s, overpopulation was the global warming of its day. But as a chorus of modern day demographers have pointed out, those experts’ doomsday predictions didn’t come true. Not only is there enough food to sustain the world’s population – which could theoretically fit comfortably into the state of Texas – but food prices are declining while distribution has improved exponentially.

Other experts warned that we were running out of coal, oil, and other raw materials, yet inevitably new sources of these fuels were discovered, along with alternatives. Every generation has witnessed innovators developing new ways to harvest resources and use them more efficiently and cheaply. We take progress for granted, but we shouldn’t. You can’t remove an important element (in this case, a new generation of children) from any equation and realistically expect to get the same end result.

My family’s carbon footprint isn’t six times that of a single, childless person. Driving my wife and kids in one vehicle uses up no more gas than one driver tooling around in the same car. We vacation together, eat together, shop together, and so on. Families learn to conserve their limited resources by necessity. My children and I are also learning how to care for planet earth by reading the Curious George books together, as our family’s favorite fictional monkey learns to “reduce, reuse and recycle.” Education rather than annihilation is the answer.

Not everyone agrees, of course. I’m forced to confront opposition to my family’s very existence almost every day, as progressive Brooklynites bluntly inform me that I’m being selfish for having so many children.

For my part, I used to see the childfree movement as selfish and blindly dogmatic, but now I realize I was being naïve and simplistic. In fact, in many cases childless couples choose to be so for what they consider altruistic ideals, not selfish ones. The irony is that the reason they give for not wanting kids is the reason they would make the best parents: they are responsible, forward thinking people who care about the future of our planet.

For all their thoughtfulness, however, they haven’t quite thought through the implications of their decision. Quite simply, without children, there will be no future to either save or destroy.

* * * * *

In the Hebrew Bible the first commandment to humankind is “Be fruitful and multiply.” Some might ask why God needs to command people to do something that not only guarantees the continued survival of the human race but also comes so naturally. I sometimes wonder, however, if that long-ago command to be fruitful and multiply was actually meant for us modern people, thousands of years in the future – a kind of message in a (baby) bottle that would wash ashore in our postmodern, post-parenting era. The question is, are we willing to heed it?

About the Author: Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, an internationally known best-selling author whose first book, "Up, Up and Oy Vey!" received the Benjamin Franklin Award, has been profiled in leading publications including The New York Times, The Miami Herald and The London Guardian. He was recently voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. His forthcoming book is “The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.”


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4 Responses to “How Shrinking Families Are Destroying Our Planet”

  1. About forty years ago I was the only gentile in an evening conversational Hebrew class in Palo Alto, California. We were learning numbers, and our teacher, Ilana K., asked me how many children I had. I answered, שש (shesh: six). Mrs. X, the sweet little white-haired lady in the seat behind me gasped, "Oh, the pollution!"

    A few days later, a Sunday, was Israel's Independence Day. We lived just a block away from the Jewish Community Center, and after our morning (Mormon) church services, we took the kids, still in their Sunday best, to the celebrations, so that they could learn something of the culture and sample the goodies. The first person we ran into was Mrs. X. She sized up the childfren and exclaimed, "Oh, they're so beautiful! You can have all the children you want."

    With her kind permission, we had three more.

  2. Daniel Bartholomew says:

    כל הכבוד

  3. Ben Abraham says:

    Yes, there's a fertility deccline among most affluent, First World countries; but such concerns may be allayed with advanced fertility methods, adoption and immgiration, as well as robotics/artificial intelligence and cloning. The future is now!

  4. Ben Abraham says:

    Yes, there's a fertility decline among most affluent, First World countries; but such concerns may be allayed with advanced fertility methods, adoption and immgiration, as well as robotics/artificial intelligence and cloning. The future is now!

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