Is family breakdown the cause or the cure for the global crisis of population decline? Two new articles in top foreign policy journals raise the question.
“As the flight from marriage and the normalization of divorce has recast living arrangements in Japan, the cohort of married fertile adults has plummeted in size,” Nicholas Eberstadt says. “And marriage is the only real path to parenthood. Unwed motherhood remains, so to speak, inconceivable because of the enduring disgrace conferred by out-of-wedlock births. In effect, the Japanese have embraced voluntary mass childlessness.” Eberstadt is a demographer and political economist with the American Enterprise Institute. His essay appeared in the latest volume of the Wilson Quarterly.
The answer to population decline according to another expert is gender equality, managed immigration, and “the acceptance of non-traditional family structures, such as unmarried cohabitation. After all,” Steven Philip Kramer noted in the New York Times, “the countries most committed to the traditional family, such as Germany, Italy and Japan, have the lowest birthrates. Countries with high birthrates, in contrast, usually also have large numbers of children born out of wedlock.” Kramer teaches at the National Defense University in Washington, DC and his views were also published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.
While Kramer’s recommendations for non-traditional families focus on the number of children born, other experts warn that children’s quality of life suffers, as does the national economy. “In Sweden, where cohabitation enjoys widespread acceptance and legal support, cohabiting families are less stable than married families,” a report from the Social Trends Institute says. Children born to cohabiting couples were 75% more likely than children born to married couples to see their parents break up by the age of 15, even while the percentage of single-parent households in Sweden nearly doubled from 11% in 1985 to 19% in 2008. Out-of-wedlock births are the “new normal” in much of the world where 40% of all children are born without married parents.
“Men who get and stay married work harder, smarter, and longer hours, and they earn between 10 and 24 percent more money,” the report says. “Children in the United States who are raised outside of an intact, married home are two to three times more likely to suffer from social and psychological problems, such as delinquency, depression, and dropping out of high school.”
Phillip Longman, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is one of the report’s authors. Longman and Eberstadt both contributed to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics, which shows why fertility decline is causing instability in world affairs.
In Japan, Eberstadt says, children without siblings could result in the “little emperor” syndrome now plaguing China. So sparse are siblings, aunts, and uncles that “rental relatives” are now readily available for brides and grooms lacking family to fill their wedding ceremonies. Japan’s demographic decline contributes to its high suicide rate, which is second only to Russia’s. Russia has the second oldest population after Japan.
As bad as things seem, they will probably get worse. Many children face a lonely old age, Eberstadt says. A 22 year-old Japanese woman today has a life expectancy of about 90 years, but has a 25% chance of never marrying, only a 50% chance of a lasting marriage due to rising rates of divorce, a 38% chance of ending up childless, and a better-than-even chance of living her whole life with no biological grandchildren.
What could turn things around? Eberstadt says a “national awakening” akin to a religious movement could reinvigorate childrearing. “But nothing like this has ever happened in an affluent open society with fertility levels as low as Japan’s.”
Russia sounded the religious note at the UN last week when, after lamenting the country’s scarcity of children, its delegate said, “Our aim is to insure the most favorable conditions for their further life; to bring up a generation of spiritually developed, well-educated and socially active people.” The Russians criticized UN Secretary General’s reports for their “one-sidedness” in promoting fertility decline as “the only accurate direction towards the achievement of economic development and social well-being of states.”