“Dr. Penman has devoted his life to the scientific understanding of social change. In this piece, he reveals how money and family size correlate, how lower birth-rates impact the work force and an intriguing potential solution to the critical problem of shrinking family sizes.”
The low birth-rates in Western countries mean that our ageing population must rely on immigrants to maintain itself. This in turn has caused enormous unrest and the feeling of being swamped by outsiders from another culture. An obvious solution is to again start having enough children at least to replace ourselves, but what policies might work?
As a society we lean towards economic explanations for behaviour, and in some ways this makes sense. People are guided by money in their choice of job. Thus, while tax accountant or actuary might not be most people’s first career choice, society manages to find enough of them to fill its needs. Women also tend to be drawn to men with money, which is why Cinderella wanted to marry the prince rather than the local dustman.
But money has less impact on family size. My parents had three children before they bought their first house, with another soon after. For many years we lived on a single salary in a small house. I myself started having children while working as a gardening contractor, supporting a wife and in rented housing, with barely a cent in the bank. The reason was that I simply loved children and wanted a family as soon as possible. To date I have ten, and would have more if that were possible. Children are, to me, an enormous joy, which no new car or expensive holiday could match.
These days, people tend to put off having kids until they are well-off, often in their late thirties. Governments which are concerned about the birth-rate tend to provide support such as cheaper childcare and maternity leave, but none of this gets them to want children. Ironically, the ancient Romans had a far shrewder idea of human motivation than we do, despite all the advances of science and technology since then. When the Emperor Augustus wanted to raise the birth-rate of his subjects, he didn’t offer them childcare subsidies but berated them for being selfish. Of course, this didn’t work either, but at least he understood the problem. Twentieth century politicians such as Mussolini also tried praise and rewards, with similar lack of success.
So why have people ceased wanting children? Laboratory research may provide the answer. Over the past eight years my research team has been investigating the effects of mild food shortage on rats. This has a wide range of effects on physiology and behavior, such as making them more active and exploratory. They also, and very significantly, become more interested and effective mothers, spending more time with their young and doing much better at gathering them back into the nest.
The idea that limited food promotes interest in children fits the pattern of human history. In particular, we can appreciate this by looking at societies that become wealthy. From ancient Rome to the Chinese scholar-gentry of traditional China to the modern age, the inevitable result is a falling birth-rate. Without exception, such societies fail to reproduce themselves.
Our research suggests that the most important age for this effect is late childhood and adolescence, basically from age 6 to 18. An illustration of this is the effects of the Great Depression, a distinct period of blight in a century of growing prosperity. The people who passed late childhood and adolescence in this period became the parents of the baby boom, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
Fortunately, science suggests that economic blight is not the only way to achieve this result. Restricting sexual activity has a similar effect to food shortage, such as in reducing testosterone. The same applies, we believe, to a number of other behaviors associated with religion. Thus it is that people who faithfully follow demanding religious traditions tend to have more children. Examples from the modern world include Mormons and Hasidic Jews. Utah, for example, has the highest birth-rate of any American state, well above replacement level.
All this suggests that government efforts to increase the birth-rate will be futile. Governments cannot command people to be religious, and in any case their focus these days tends to be more on undermining religious faith and practice.
But science also suggests that there might be another solution, perhaps in conjunction with religion, in that it might be possible to immunize people against the bad effects of too much wealth. Our experiments have shown that it is possible to restore healthy maternal behavior in rats without making them hungry. In one series of experiments we set up treated and untreated rats with their young in adjacent cages, and them removed the barrier. The treated rats were so intensely maternal that they typically adopted both litters as their own. In another experiment treated rats were far less interested in alcohol, which suggests a possible treatment for drug addiction and other blights of our wealthy urban societies.
With some investment in research, science might be able to achieve what governments cannot.
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