Sometimes I see articles discussing how far the birthrate has fallen in many countries and pointing out that this is a worldwide trend. Families are much smaller than they were in the past, and many young adults are opting not to have children at all. The authors often make dire predictions as to what will happen if this trend continues for another millennium or so, leaving a tiny human population on the brink of extinction.
There aren’t enough reasons to want children in today’s society, they say. In past generations, large families had economic value because children worked on the family farm. As they grew older, they took care of their aging parents, who might otherwise be left destitute upon becoming unable to work. But nowadays, a child is just an expensive, time-consuming luxury item. Even in countries where the government provides good child care and pays generous stipends to parents, birthrates remain low. Simply put, modern-day humans have many other things they’d rather be doing than raising families.
While I agree with the short-term prediction that the world’s population will soon reach its peak and then begin falling, I don’t see this as a cause for alarm. As I see it, the resulting labor shortage and high salaries will be very good for wage-earners. Raising a family on one parent’s salary, while the other parent stays home with the children, will be an affordable choice. Lost career opportunities won’t be as much of a concern because the average lifespan will continue to increase. A parent who stays home raising a large family until age 50 might reasonably expect to have a productive career until age 100, or perhaps even longer. Employment discrimination will be much less of a problem because of the labor shortage. Because the young adults of the future will not have to face today’s social and economic constraints with regard to families, their choices may turn out to be very different from what we’re seeing now.
When I wrote this post, my main purpose wasn’t to reassure worried readers that humans are not heading toward extinction. Nor am I suggesting that all children would be better off with a parent who does not work outside the home. Rather, this post is meant to illustrate how current trends often become absurd when they’re extrapolated out too far. We lack a sufficient frame of reference to predict what will happen in the long term because our baseline assumptions soon become outdated. Thus, although a calm, well-reasoned focus on solving present-day problems may not get as much attention as shrieking about a coming apocalypse, the former approach generally results in wiser policy decisions.