THE DEMOGRAPHIC FATE OF intelligent SPECIES: 3/7. From survival necessity to just another demanding hobby: how babies encounter seri-ous competition in modern life.

3/7. From survival necessity to just another demanding hobby: how babies encounter seri-ous competition in modern life.

Reproduction was a matter of survival, something one had to do, in pre-industrial days. It still is today in the world's undeveloped regions. By helping around the house or working outside for income, children contributed from an early age to their family. Few in the West complained about child labor before the 19th century. Even more importantly, juniors were the only pension scheme available to their creators, something many 21st century Americans still understand when they wire money to the old country. In those nasty days before Social Security and the likes, children were counted on to directly support their old parents. With babies being such a necessity, people around the planet sought to maximize back then their chance of having enough of them. Given sky-high infant and child mortalities, the rational way to do it was to have as many as you can so that one or two would hopefully make it through.
Modernization has changed all that. First, a drop in mortality gave parents more surviving babies and, accordingly, the confidence to cut births. A few primitive contraceptive techniques that had always existed, like the biblical coitus interruptus, were enough to slow population explosions in 19th century Europe, betraying therefore an earlier lack of interest in contraception, not technical know-how. Next, the mass exodus from the countryside brought birth numbers further down. In a farmer’s world, parents could use the importance of inheriting farmland to secure their children’s support. With that leverage now gone in the cities, the higher risk of juniors defaulting on their duties had parental focus shifted from babies to savings. With the arrival of modern pension schemes, which took away from the family direct responsibilities for old age support, the link between one's children and one's cushioned retirement become less obvious for new generations. Outside of macroeconomics circles, babies are now rarely seen as an economic necessity in the developed world.
Why choose to have kids at all when you no longer bank on them for economic security? The answer these days may have more to do with life fulfillment. Besides economic reasons, babies have always, since forever perhaps, been born for emotional rewards. According to evolutionary psychologists, humans, both male and female, may be biologically hard-wired to enjoy nurturing. Genetic programming may explain why we find babbling toddlers irresistibly cute and thus will continue to have them even when their economic value seems to have declined. That being said, there is also more than one way to satisfy the caring gene. Many couples, through adoption, are happily devoted to tiny strangers born oceans away. Others still may prefer to direct their nurturing urges towards a dog or cat: there are now more registered pets than children under age 15 in Japan. It seems therefore that while Mother Nature may have made us love children, and so are likely to have them, she neither imposes the decision nor dictates a minimum to have.
Nurturing aside, nature has also predisposed the self-indulgent humans to countless other temptations. To make matters worse, most of those are now within reach in our technology-enabled affluent societies. Not long ago, life was all about work - all the activities you have to do for a living, even if you don't enjoy them. Our austere ancestors toiled for food from early childhood until near death. And to secure food when they could no longer work, they had to have, in what amounted to monumental work, as many children as possible. Fun - any activity that one freely chooses to do to enjoy oneself, not having to do it for a living – was minimal. Thanks to our record free time and unprecedented wealth, that is not our life anymore. From shopping (retail therapy, anyone?), eating (record obesity), video games (the average gamer is over 30) to coaching your kids (who no longer leave at ten to become servants), community service, intellectual pursuits (the after-hour hobby of a patent clerk named Einstein changed the world)…, fun is now omnipresent and accessible.
Babies, born for emotional value these days, obviously don’t hold the monopoly of fun the way they were once the only pension scheme around. Competing against them are the many enjoyable things afforded by modernity: freedom, personal fulfillment, career, consumption, knowledge, entertainment… Having kids is a great way to learn about life, young people may favor the education of traveling the world. Children being absolutely great fun, potential parents may prefer the joy of casual sex… No matter how rich we become, life will always be full of trade-offs. Though people may love the idea of a big family, they would still cut down on kids in favor of their other loves, be it African elephants, competing with the Joneses, politics (Lenin and Ralph Nader are childless), gods (as are the Pope and Mother Teresa), contemplation (or the Buddha and Thoreau)… With so many good choices available and only one life to live, a compromise - dirty word, no doubt, but inevitable - has to be found on how much of each to have. Free from the directives of Stalin or Mao, different people have different picks for best cocktail. Bombarded with options, fewer are following the classic road map for big family which calls for an early settling down, efforts to avoid break-up and a serious time and money allocation toward child-rearing. 
Unlike the single-mom mammals in the wild who just need a sperm donor, most human females will only reproduce in a stable couple setting, wedding cake or not. Given almost the same window of fecundity, the young are now settling down much later than their parents. Why commit yourself when you are having so much fun, pursuing exciting projects, and your next date, who knows, may be even better? In a story typical of his generation, the boomer George W. Bush, after a partying 20s, finally settled down at 31, at which age his father, married at 21, had found time to fight a war, go to college, get wedded and father four babies. The trade-offs against other enjoyable activities being so huge, even the most generous countries are struggling to make parenthood attractive to young people. A pro-child state can help a lot with the raising of an already existing toddler, by giving parents more free time and convenient facilities. However, there is not much a democratic government can do, in the first place, to lure young adults from the freedoms of single life to the troubles of a stable union into which most human infants are still being born. Young people may love the idea of having kids sometime in the future, still they love the action of having a late-night party here and now even more. Can Western politicians just ban reproductive-age voters and taxpayers, the pols' very bosses, from partying because drinking and smoking are physiologically bad for their sperms and eggs?
When people finally settle down, they now do it for love and passion. Yet love-based unions are notoriously unstable. The whole thing ends the moment your soul mate walks out the door, having found excitement - or just peace - elsewhere. Such was not the case of the old survival-based marriage. It’s human to stick together in tough times: in the face of uncertainty, the divorce rate of East Germans, previously higher than their western brothers’, plummeted during the first three years of German unification. Over the last 100 years, as survival pressure drops in the rich world, dissolving unsatisfactory unions has become much more affordable, so much so that nowadays almost half of all marriages there end in divorce. As people settle down later in life, and their unions are less stable than their parents', the chance is now much lower that they will have, at the end of their fecund years, many children. Why can’t non-Taliban governments simply legislate everlasting love so that couples stay happily together and make more babies, for God/Allah/ Yahweh/… and country?
Late-forming and easy breakup aside, even stable couples are having fewer children these days. The one-child family is now totally normal and acceptable in the big metropolises of the West. Given their limited resources and the labor-intensive nature of parenting, many modern-day couples are deliberately prioritizing work and other pursuits over this parenting hobby. It's a conscious choice made by able-minded adults. As any responsible parent can tell, raising a child has always been tough job. Dads and mums have to give up a lot to be good parents: how many hours have you spent reading silly books to your kids last week? While government help can make child-rearing somewhat easier, it can never make it easy. Despite more than 40 years of generous time and money subsidies, as long as below-2.1 fertility itself, Scandinavian birthrates have never risen back to replacement level. At around 1.9 babies per female, they are, surprisingly, only as fertile as those poor Americans who have to get by, comparatively, in a capitalist jungle. Saying that you can't afford kids because life in America/Sweden is so hard, while subjectively honest, will sound like bullsh-t to those African parents who have to reproduce prolifically in wretched conditions. It's not because they like it that way. It's about future survival when one doesn't have the luxury of Social Security, Medicare... to fall back on in old age. If you are unhappy in, say, Western Europe, why don't you swap your place with a Nigerian, for a change? It looks like there are a zillion times more Nigerians than Western Europeans who want to make that swap.
When a safety net eventually appears and renders babies economically less important, Nigerians will cut births accordingly, just like the Scandinavians did a few generations back. Life then will still be hard, though what constitutes hardship will have changed, as some child-free co-workers constantly post Instagram pictures of their joyful overseas vacations. Rich-world folks are having fewer kids but their houses, cars and wardrobes are all getting bigger, they eat out and travel more often, find ample time for political activism, TV watching, Facebook updating... Conscious parents calculatedly choose this new balance of kids vs. other pursuits because it's become economically feasible and they enjoy it. What causes below-2.1 fertility is a widespread self-indulgence made possible by affluence, not a lack of resources for child-raising. There's absolutely nothing new, unhuman, or wrong about lazy preferences; people are just not very candid about enjoying them more than another pregnancy. When asked in surveys, most still state an ideal family size bigger than they actually have. Wouldn’t they say the same, however, about salary or vacations? Polled voters also famously want both higher benefits and lower taxes at the same time. Talking from your couch to a pollster about your daydream is cheap (and very self-indulgent), do you have the guts to get up and face the trade-offs that will get you there? Conditions permitting, most carbon-based humans will naturally prefer easier pursuits (movies, dog-keeping, philanthropy...) to rewarding but exacting hobbies (math, parenting, adoption...). Self-indulgence being human nature, it is what it is, neither good nor bad.
As we no longer have to reproduce for survival reasons, we can now see how strong/weak our innate desire for cute toddlers really is, especially when competing with other hard-wired temptations. Late-formed, short-lived, and self-indulgent couples are naturally less conducive to human babies, most of whom are still being born into steady unions of two parents, married or not, gay or straight. Our love of children, though powerful, may not be powerful enough to save the species. Having survived really tough times throughout its history, can humanity survive plenty? Is affluence, through the low birthrate it brings, our species' undoing?

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