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.
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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.