Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Generation Fallow

On Mothers’ Day, three generations of mothers gathered at my house and I noticed something: my extended family is shrinking. My mother gave birth to eight children. My wife bore half that many - four. My oldest daughter has one child and my second-oldest is pregnant. Neither is talking about having any more. Birth rates are declining in my family and we’re not unique. Our children’s generation isn’t generating much. Many have only one or two or none at all. For a society just to maintain itself, each woman must bear 2.1 children. For it to expand, the birth rate must exceed that. American society as we’ve known it is static or declining.

When I ask today’s young people why they want so few children I hear a lot of different answers, but the two most common responses go something like: “I can’t afford them; children are too expensive these days,” or “I don’t want to bring them into this crazy world; it’s too scary.”

I’m not sure what to make of answers like that when I think about the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Commenting on his lifetime, my 84-year-old father-in-law said, “The happiest times in my life were when we were eating onion sandwiches.” Asked what he meant by that, he explained that his family was very poor while he was growing up and all they could afford to eat sometimes were onions and bread, but those times were his best, he claims. He and his wife raised seven children after living through the Depression and World War II. Compared to all that, what has today’s generation faced? Nothing nearly so daunting, yet they fear the future. Their standard of living is much higher, but they can’t afford children? Are they in despair? Are they selfish?

My wife claims she was happiest when the kids were little and we ate soup. We struggled every month to pay the bills then and she stretched the food budget by making a lot of soup. We had four kids and, on my teacher salary, we were officially below the federal poverty line. We’re not poor anymore but I can’t say we’re necessarily happier.

Why did hard times and war make people optimistic enough to usher in the baby boom, but relative peace and prosperity have made young people today fearful and fallow? Have they had it too easy? Some blame the decline of traditional family and marriage, or single parents, birth control, abortion or homosexuality for declining birth rates.

Some of this came into focus recently when bronze statues depicting a traditional family of four at a baseball game were offered to the city of Portland, Maine as a gift from the AA baseball team’s owner. The city council referred the matter to their Public Art Committee which voted 6-1 to reject them. The committee, according to the “Portland Press Herald,” felt that: “...the statues fail to reflect Portland's growing diversity, both in its people and its artwork. Portland has significant minority, single-parent and gay-parent households, and committee members have said they want fewer statues of white people.”

White people? The statues were bronze. However, nonwhite immigrant populations, both legal and illegal, have much higher birthrates here and elsewhere in the country even though they tend to be much poorer than the native-born who claim they can’t afford children. If poorer immigrants are confident enough to bear children, perhaps their progeny are more deserving of America’s future more than the more sparse descendants of the native-born.

The same thing is happening in Europe, but even more so. To quote from a recent article in “USA Today”: “Not a single Western European country has a fertility rate sufficient to replace the current population, which demographers say requires 2.1 children per family. Germany, Russia, Spain, Poland and Italy all have rates of about 1.3 children, according to the U.N. The Czech Republic's is less than 1.2, and even Roman Catholic Ireland is at 1.9 children. (The U.S. rate, which has remained stable, is slightly more than 2 children per woman.)”

Concurrent with this is the abandonment of Christianity on that continent. Are the two trends related? Perhaps. The great European cathedrals, built with the labor and sacrifice or much poorer people are almost empty on Sundays as prosperous Europeans of today have abandoned them.

Here in the U.S. assaults on religion in the public square and on the traditional family continue. Both, however, are holding out, and many are pushing back. A lot of Americans still attend church on Sundays. They still have enough hope to bring children into this world. In spite of 45 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade, America’s birth rate hovers at replacement level.

Where do we go from here? It’s either grow in hope or shrink in despair.

No comments: