Not long ago, I received an 11th-hour request to discuss this topic on a public radio show with Last, a writer at the Weekly Standard. The urgency was probably due to the fact that the lineup included, along with Last, two other gentlemen and a male host. I agreed to represent we wombs with legs. On the show, I was introduced as “someone who comes from a very different point of view from our other guests, inasmuch as she is a woman.” I said that I questioned any conversations about fertility decline without centering around the people who are exclusively bearing and primarily raising children — the ones I’d been asked to solely represent. “These abstractions, I don’t think that they really speak to the lived realities of people’s lives,” I said. “I think lots of women are making rational decisions about how many children to have.” I mentioned the lack of paid family leave and daycare, the stigmatization of single mothers, families separated in deportation proceedings.
Meanwhile, the economist Nancy Folbre writes at the Times, “I know of no historical evidence that either the productivity or the creativity of a society is determined by the age structure of its population. The interaction between demographic and economic change is so much more complex than the simplistic doomsday scenario implies.” She does say that an aging population with lower (but stabilized) fertility raises concerns about the long-term viability of how our retirement programs work, but that’s an issue of program design and priority, not certain civilizational destruction.
So why the hysteria? I’d argue that it serves several retrograde political functions, besides its marketability as a counterintuitive rebuttal to the “Population Bomb” fears of old. We are in a moment of partial Republican self-examination, in which certain party reformers are facing the fact that there just aren’t enough white voters to keep them in power — a demographic problem! (While there have been some serious conversations about family-friendly policies started by feminists, including Stephanie Coontz in the Times last weekend, it’s currently edgy among Republicans to support tax breaks for working families they once proposed.) And every conversation about how allegedly unsustainable Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are, for one reason or another, mainstreams the pressure to radically cut its benefits or reshape it to the whims of the market.