Declining birth rates as a signal of “late-modern exhaustion”

by Ryan Streeter on December 2, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Ross Douthat has done a great job in his new column explaining why our declining birth rates are a problem. Having children is, as he notes, an important policy objective given how we’ve structured distribution in America. As he says, though, declining birth rates signal something much worse than the fact that we’ll have fewer taxpayers in the future:

[A] more secure economic foundation beneath working-class Americans would presumably help promote childbearing as well. Stable families are crucial to prosperity and mobility, but the reverse is also true, and policies that made it easier to climb the economic ladder would make it easier to raise a family as well.

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion — a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It’s a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.

We could use more debate in America – including among pro-family groups – about the nature of the exhaustion and decadence Douthat describes.