Canadian journalists, particularly our female journalists, spent the latter half of last week responding to a bold cultural analysis published in the New York Times (NYT) by Ross Douthat. Demographic researchers have long been warning much of the developed world of the hysteria surrounding population growth creates disproportionate threats. While developing countries struggle to support rapidly growing populations they were unable to provide for in the first place, the developed countries are no longer maintaining the population rates need to support their elder generation. This ironic dichotomy is essentially connected to economic growth, future innovation, and as a result, our livelihoods.
In “More Babies, Please”, Douthat claims “[t]he retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe.” He continues, “It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.” The NYT Columnist is not wrong to highlight the dilemma which declining birth rates present to more and more of the developed world. In fact, facing this recognition is the only responsible choice for our leaders and youth to make in order to secure not only our futures, but also our parents. However as Chrystia Freeland points out, “[t]his cultural critique—made, not accidentally, mostly by men—misses the central fact about falling birth rates. They are, above all, driven by decisions by women.” Therefore when Douthat uses language that portrays modern populations (or at least the child bearing members) as purely hedonistic, he is dismissing several of the factors that contribute to this trend and reducing the purpose of human life to procreation.
Freeland’s analysis of the population predicament moves on to look at broad historical and economic processes that have taken place since industrialization. Although there is no denying the role of culture, encasing the search for solutions in the cultural blame game will only resurrect patriarchal stereotypes women have worked hard to bury. Margaret Wente offers a more nuanced response to Douthat’s article that uses both age and gender playfully to entice a reaction from Globe and Mail readers. The “cheery little factoid” Wente opens with: “In Japan, sales of adult diapers now exceed sales of baby diapers.” Despite Wente’s lack of critical thinking at times, both female Columnists agree dealing with economic stagnation caused by declining populations will require a solution that moves beyond the current discourse. Population trends will increasingly demand our attention in the next few decades because as Wente responds to these new sales statistics, “[w]ould you want to live in a world like that? Me neither.”