The rise of baby doomers

As the media cycle lurches from the promotion of one existential crisis to another, demography continues to dominate. In the UK, low birth rates and ageing populations mean we won’t be able to afford healthcare and pensions; we have too many of the “wrong type” of immigrants and too much of the “wrong type” of emigration. Of course, some countries have it worse. China, having shot itself in the groin with its one-child policy, is set to become smaller than India, for whom a growing population could be either a blessing or a curse (take your pick). Globally, fertility rates are falling, but eco-worriers remind us that “overpopulation” continues to contribute to the climate emergency.

Amid such hysteria it’s unclear whether we should be encouraging the patter of tiny feet or reducing the reproduction of ginormous carbon footprints. What is clear, however, is that none of this hyperbolic claims-making is really about demography — a complicated and specialist discipline based on the statistical study of human populations. It’s more about doomography — a fatalistic cultural trend that relies on elementary maths about big and small numbers to give a clever-looking veneer to sublimated anxieties about social and economic problems.

In my research field of generational conflict, for example, tensions over housing, pensions, cultural values and a range of other issues are routinely treated as problems arising from having more older people than younger people. This evades the nuanced discussions that need to be addressed in their own terms: inciting kids to “mug Grandma” for her pensioner perks will do nothing to help today’s workers gain a better standard of living now.

Worse, the doomographic mindset evades the very question it pretends to focus on: why have we become turned off reproduction? While acknowledging the problem of demographic determinism, it is surely right to think that a slowdown in population growth represents something significant and potentially troubling, and to consider its potential causes. Sociologically, one trend that stands out, certainly in Western societies, is the discomfort we have with the idea of renewing ourselves.

The study of generations involves engaging with reproduction on three levels: biological, social and cultural. Biological reproduction is common to all species, but for humans, having a baby usually involves the prior decision that this is something you want to do. It’s a personal choice, assisted by modern reproductive technologies but not given by these — birth rates tend to fall as societies develop, regardless of access to contraception or abortion. But like all choices, having a baby is framed by prevailing social and cultural dynamics and relationships. At its most basic, if having a child is seen as a key component of a meaningful life, people will couple up and get on with it; if becoming a parent is regarded as a troublesome burden, couples — or one half of a couple — are likely to dither, delay or decide that it’s all too much bother. And they do so in a context where their peers are wrestling with the same anguished choices.

It’s hardly controversial to suggest that the prevailing sentiment of cultural pessimism in Western societies makes the 2020s an inhospitable time for a baby boom. Yet the narrow instrumentalism of doomographic thinking leads to wishful thinking as well as apocalyptic prophesying. For instance, attempts to explain why young people delay, or avoid, having children as a consequence of purely economic factors often lead to reductive claims about the prohibitive cost of housing or childcare. Now, these factors certainly make it more difficult to start and sustain a family, and policy should address them — but our ancestors managed to create us despite having much less wealth. Focusing only on the factors that frame individual decisions also misses the bigger question, of what drives societies to reproduce themselves in the first place.

Into this confused debate, a major report launched last week by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) — 8 Billion Lives: Infinite Possibilities — was breathlessly upbeat. The report notes that while “climate change, pandemics, conflicts, mass displacement, economic uncertainty and other issues fuel concerns about over and under-population”, in reality, “human reproduction is neither the problem nor the solution”. On paper, I agree with every word of the above — except that I’ve followed the work of UNFPA for years, and I’m suspicious.

The UN’s report seems to mark an abrupt shift in rhetoric from the organisation that, at the turn of the century, was at the forefront of promoting fears about overpopulation (1999: 6 Billion – A Time for Choices) and the impact of population growth on the environment (2001: Footprints and Milestones — Population and Environmental Change). Though UNFPA has long been careful to acknowledge “the violations that can occur when family planning is used as a tool for ‘population control’”, this has gone hand in hand with its own promotion of “empowerment and autonomous family planning” as a way of controlling the size and shape of populations (2022: Seeing the Unseen — The Case for Action in the Neglected Crisis of Unintended Pregnancy).

Look a little closer, and it swiftly becomes clear that many of these sentiments have not simply vanished. Instead, UNFPA’s current foregrounding of gender equality, bodily autonomy, and sexual and reproductive health and rights is both a continuation of the “progressive” language of population control that it has been developing for years and a new twist in the doomographic tale. What matters now, says UNFPA, is that nation states stop worrying about reproducing themselves, and instead open themselves up to the possibilities afforded by open borders and the movement of labour. In other words, we should push forth with “solving” the number problems of richer countries by taking workers from poorer nations, and provide more childcare so that all women can work as well.

When the report was launched in Brussels, at an event organised by Friends of Europe, Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography, spoke of the need to protect the rights of women and girls in a world of eight billion, commenting further that “demography transcends borders”. All of which, again, sounds very lovely. But is declining fertility really something that should merely be shrugged off? Where is the future orientation in a society that doesn’t see the need to reproduce? Demography may “transcend borders”, but a society in which children are conceptualised primarily as future workers of wherever they end up is not one that is conducive to actual people having babies.

This is where the problems of cultural and social reproduction reveal themselves. At the heart of the culture wars consuming many Western societies is a conflict over the relationship between the past and the future. One side sees a generational continuity rooted in the norms and values that have grown up over time and looks to reproduce the relationships and institutions that have given life meaning: hence the tendency to focus on attachments to family, community and nation, and the reaction against disruptive globalising trends. The other side sees a future that can only be made possible by “freeing” people from history, often through the aggressive promotion of a “year zero” ideal that imagines we can cauterise our relationship with the past and start all over again. The cultural legacy of modernity is disclaimed as “problematic”, economic development is decried as “destructive”, and even the sexed body is presented as an impediment to individual self-realisation.

The polarised character of this conflict of course hides a more nuanced reality. The generational transaction has never been a pitched battle between the past and the future: those who derive meaning from the past do not actually live there, nations are always changing, and values and attitudes evolve as society moves on. But the very fact that we are engaged in debates about the problem of who we are and were means that the foundation for reproducing ourselves starts to look rather shaky.

All this insecurity has been sharpened and accelerated by the response to the pandemic, where initial, official excitement about the construction of a “new normal” revealed a nose-pinching distaste for the “old normal” that has been shaped over generations. It turned out, of course, that replacing our battered old society with some kind of disembodied techno-utopia was neither possible nor desirable: the “new normal” is a more fragmented, fractious, unstable and expensive version of what we had before.

During the pandemic, however, we also stopped taking continuity for granted and briefly bought into the fantasy that we could start again with something better. But generational renewal is more than just a numbers game. It requires a shared commitment to the life we want to pass on, and the children to whom we pass it on. Our fatalistic failure to recognise this, more than any contraceptive, is the greatest barrier to reproduction today. Underlying all our doomographic headlines is a more straightforward truth: that you can’t have a future without a past.

This article was first published by UnHerd.

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