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The Critic Essay

There is no magic bullet for raising birth rates

A complex network of spiritual, cultural and economic factors underpin our fertility slump

The influence of religion on fertility is undeniable. Since the dawn of Western society — first through various Pagan European faiths and then to Christianity — an everlasting purpose created a duty to carry on a legacy on earth. Through a spiritual lens, relationships are, for the most part, viewed in the context of marriage and/or procreation. There is less of a motive for one-night stands, long-term relationships without the ultimate intention of a family or cohabitation without the prospect of lifelong commitment. 

It is not just the lack of spirituality itself which causes people to lose a practical sense of direction, but the reverberations this loss of transcendental meaning has on human psychology. Without a belief in a creator, it is difficult to believe in oneself, let alone in the future of humanity. This is why we often hear the phrase, “I don’t want to bring children into this world”. Reason has replaced faith. We hear rational arguments for having children, arguments that seek to maximise personal comfort, instead of trusting divine instruction, which can often be irrational. Restoring a sense of spirituality is a challenging prospect, but a necessary one to preserve the value of our posterity.  

The decline in religious observance isn’t the only reason for low birth rates. Many argue that economics is not a cause of a decline in fertility because poorer nations have the highest birth rates. This is statistically true, but it overlooks the structural nature of richer, post-industrial economies. In poorer, pre-industrial agrarian societies, children contributed to a family’s labour, enriching its economic output. Italy, for example, just one-hundred years ago, was largely a proletariat society. It was common for families to have five or more children, because having children was a net benefit: they could help the family with labour and take care of parents and grandparents in old age. 

Having children is an economic cost that parents, or individuals, must bear, at their own material disadvantage

Today, the opposite is true. Having children is an economic cost that parents, or individuals, must bear, at their own material disadvantage. Elders are often placed in care homes, as they are considered a burden for their children, because they no longer have the space to take care of them in their houses. Couples therefore do not feel a need to have children. There is no material incentive to do so. One can argue that having children is an inherent joy, but the increasing costs, both economic and personal, largely decrease incentives beyond having one child — which is today’s approximate birthrate in Europe and the US.  

The advent of capitalist industrialisation has also caused families to fragment. Once, there were extended families in large buildings. In Europe, what are now apartment blocks composed of many separate apartments cohabited by different people with no ties to one another, were once multi-generational family buildings. Grandparents lived on one floor, parents on another, children on another too, and so forth. This structure gave parents, and women in particular, a solid support system to raise their children. Children also grew up in healthier environments, as they had a multitude of people they could rely on and who could mentor them. Responsibilities were shared, rather than concentrated on one or two individuals. The nuclear family that conservatives romanticise was an invention of the mid 1900s that caused families to be torn apart. It is around this time that divorce rates began to skyrocket. Nuclear families had no outside support, except through paid nannies; women stayed at home alone without any meaningful help. Their husbands left for the office in the morning with a suit and tie, only to come home to unhappy wives.  

While conservatives blame feminism for the decline in birthrates, they fail to appreciate how feminism emerged as a response to economic conditions which caused women to feel lonely, alienated and useless. Their labour at home — from preparing meals from scratch, walking to the river to clean the laundry, etc. was replaced by machines — leading them to feel lost. As a result, women looked for political and labour rights to satisfy their need to contribute to society, especially after their children became of age and no longer needed them, or left the home, often never to return again. Even the idea that parents must nullify themselves to provide their children with all the opportunities they can — from music lessons, to sports lessons, etc. when once children helped their parents at home — led to this feeling that having many children is a burden.   

There is proof that feminism is not the cause of the decline in fertility. Despite enjoying more religious attendance and being less affected by feminist ideologies, Southern European nations, such as Spain and Italy have lower birth rates than natives in northern European countries that are less religious. Interestingly, France, the most secular country in Europe, has the highest birthrate in the EU, standing at more than 1.8. It is not at replacement level, but it is close enough to surpass Germany’s population soon. While France is affected by high levels of immigration, the birthrate among native French people still stands at 1.8; immigrants account for an increase of just 0.1. France distinguishes itself from the rest of Europe by providing families with substantive governmental support in raising children and public healthcare coverage of fertility treatments. It also enjoys a richer economy than southern European nations, so having children becomes more affordable.  

Western society has also been overtaken by romanticism, which has had a profound impact on relationships. Since the 17th century, successful love stories have been those filled with romantic thrill and passion at all stages in a relationship, so expectations for compatibility became high. This has contributed to an increase in breakups and divorce. This is not always a negative phenomenon — in fact, it can be positive. Once marriages were arranged, often making for miserable couples. Today couples stay together because they want to, not because they have to. This is a sign of progress, but the cost of this development is that compatibility is harder to find and to sustain. Indeed, many men and women choose to be alone. They are often happier without relationships that negatively affect their lives. 

Liberals propose immigration as a solution. A neglected but fundamental factor is how Western self-identity, at least in Europe and the Anglosphere countries experiencing high levels of immigration, has little to no culture for foreigners to blend into. Western heritage is rich. But many Westerners have forgotten their past achievements. Often, the immigrant population feels even more emboldened by this anonymity; the alienation they feel from the shallow consumerism that has overtaken their host society drives them to an extreme form of ethnic or religious pride. We see this with the Islamic populations in the UK, where second to third-generation Muslim immigrants are more religiously fanatical than their parents. One paper analyses how, in the UK, “search for identity, meaning and community [occurs] among the second and third generation of Muslims.” An Islamic extremist group in the UK “established a strong position in the UK amongst the second and third generation of Muslims who felt alienated and lacked a sense of belonging.”

Is Europe drifting gracelessly down the same path?

When the Romans conquered Carthage, they destroyed the local culture in such a way that even remnants in history museums are rare, because they considered their customs to be immoral. Later, the Romans endured the consequences of their own spiritual decay. Is Europe drifting gracelessly down the same path? Depopulation is caused by a multitude of factors that include a lack of economic incentives, of family support, and romantic compatibility — but also a lack of spirit.  

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