“America needs babies!” seems to be this year’s call-to-action cure-all for an economy suffering from trillions of dollars in debt, an 8% unemployment rate, and the fear of aging baby boomers. Pundits claim we need a solution, a way to get to back to that 1950-60s baby boomer America that was ripe with opportunity and promise; you know- back when we were invading Vietnam, violating civil rights, ready to blow up the Russians, and carving out our place in the Middle East. Yes, sadly, those day of yore are over. Our population is in decline; our birth rate is falling below replacement levels, and there, quite simply, aren’t enough Americans who are willing to make more Americans. If we do not remedy this issue soon, our economy, and our position as the global hegemon is in jeopardy. So put on your party hats people and start fucking.
Economists maintain that having babies promotes economic growth by providing incentives for innovation and spending. And this makes sense to the extent that the only sure-fire way to stay on top of your imperial game is to increase the number of Americans, who will in turn grow up to be spenders, and since spending encourages economic growth- then voila! Problem solved. For a while, we were also counting on the influx of South and Central American immigrants (and our racist notions of their cultural and familial values) to take care of the whole baby making thing for us, while the rest of us young privileged Americans chose to put off having babies in favor of pursuing our careers. But, as it turns out, no one really wants to have a child in an economy that rewards them for it with substandard healthcare, sexist and/or non-existent regulations on maternity/paternity leave, and an education system that supports privilege over ability. Then, of course, there are always the lesbian/gay couples who actually want to have and/or adopt children. But our whole anti-gay crusade to prevent the same-sex marriage induced apocalypse, has sort of discouraged them, as well.
In his Wall Street Journal article, America’s Baby Bust, Jonathan Last says we should “forget the debt ceiling, forget the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff, and the entitlement cliff…what America is really facing is a demographic cliff”. Oh, okay. See, I went into this whole economic crisis thing thinking that people would actually be more incentivized to have children if they felt like they would be able to provide a good life for them: by giving them the financial and emotional support they deserve. And, again, stupidly, I thought the means to providing a good life would come from better access to food, education, higher-paying jobs, healthcare, and parental work leave. And that all these issues of better access would necessarily stem from the folks in D.C. passing progressive legislation and from corporate executives making investments in the lives of their employees and the underserved neighborhoods from which they derive a significant portion of their profits. I’m so glad to see that, instead, all the economy needs is for someone to stick it in me.
In the Daily Beast’s article, Where Have All the Babies Gone?, the shift from a family-oriented society to a hyper-individualistic one was cited as another reason for the steady decline in birth rates. To the authors’ credit, this acknowledgment of the hyper-individualistic culture growing amongst young Americans, is actually very relevant, but not necessarily in the way that Kotkin and Siegel suggest. For me, the most devastating effect of American individualism is not necessarily that it has reorganized the family life/career aspiration hierarchy, but rather that is has created a society in which seemingly impenetrable walls of wealth and privilege between Americans of different strata have inhibited the growth of a collective identity, founded in empathy and interdependence. Even more troubling is that our current economic model is designed to encourage this behavior by rewarding those who choose hyper-individualistic career paths, with higher salaries, better resources, and more political power; and punishes those who choose professions whose principle aim is educate the next generation of leaders and innovators. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2011 Occupational Employment and Wages survey, the average salary for a public high school teacher was approximately $55,000 dollars with the lowest 10% earning slightly over $30,000. That same year, financial analysts earned a mean annual wage of $87,740; their median salary was $75,650. The employment rate for financial analysts is expected to grow by 23% from 2012-2020; for teachers it’s expected to grow by 7%. It is impossible to advocate baby-making for a more prosperous economy in a country that has yet to understand how its own economic policies and cultural shortcomings undermine that same effort.
Encouraging women to simply open their uteri to the potential of economic growth is not only a gross oversimplification of a multifaceted issue, but it is simply one that will not serve its purpose in an economy that is suffering from a lack of incentives to do so. We must first correct for the underlying factors causing our economic recession which seem to be a growing a tendency towards hyper-individualism supported by an economic model which rewards winner-take-all types, and a culture that encourages political and economic stagnation in its failure to address an alarming lack of empathy.
It is imperative that Americans seriously consider the value of an empathic disposition and understand themselves as part of a cohesive unit whose individual successes are measured by that of their fellow American. The relevance of child bearing to our future is not in creating more spenders, alleviating tax burdens, or ensuring economic prosperity- all these things will come from the real significance of child bearing which is- ensuring that we are continuously re-creating ourselves in our progeny with the hope that they will be wiser than their predecessors. We can only seek to do this if we first provide these future generations with right foundations for personal and economic growth. Until then, I’ll be on the pill.