Why aren't we having babies?

Fertility in the West is in freefall and what we can('t) do about it.

Fertility is in freefall in almost every developed country globally, with 23 countries, including Spain and Japan, expected to see their populations halve by 2100. Italy will see its population go from 61 million to 28 million by the end of the century. 

The many graphs documenting this are pretty much the same - a downward slope starting around the '70s. Some are an inverse hockey stick. The conclusion is inescapable: people in the West are either not having any kids or having way fewer of them than ever before.

Beyond monocausal pet theories, I believe the problem is systemic and shows up in different domains under different disguises. I look at a few of the possible issues and present the final blackpill at the end. 

Dating 

The main issues with dating (for procreation) in the modern western world cluster around two questions:

Who?

As online has become the top way people meet across the western world, a trend that's only accelerated under lockdown, the dynamics of dating have adapted to the new normal. 

Dating norms are usually conditional on how many potential partners there are around. When there are few women around, they set the terms for dating, making long-term relationships normative & requiring more investment from men. In situations where there are fewer men than women, men have the leverage. A constellation with fewer men than women typically leads to more promiscuous cultures, where women compete with each other for men and have to deal on male terms, or someone else will. 

What we see with algorithmic online dating isn't a dream sorting mechanism to assign the perfect match to each person of the opposite sex. That doesn't work because dating is competitive - everyone wants the best mate. Instead, we've created a promiscuity/polygyny machine through a false scarcity of men. 

Algorithmic dating hides two markets - the market for relationships & the market for sex under the ambiguous banner of "dating." Both women and men will try to get the best person they can on these apps, but they're looking for different things. Women are typically pickier in both looks and status - instinctively inclined to look for "keepers" given their high parental investment. Men will often be looking for sex with a broader set of female types, a search which sometimes overlaps with a search for long-term relationships but often doesn't. 

What you have then is men on apps typically trying to match with as many women as possible and women trying to match with a small selection of higher status men. That leads to the situation where a dating app's natural equilibrium is that a narrow set of men have "dating" access to almost all the women if they choose to, and they typically do. Even with the best intentions, these men aren't interested in relationships with all these women, even though they will see them once or twice. The more options a man has, the less inclined he is to want one relationship. 

The fact that online dating has become normative in many regions, especially in urban areas, creates a false scarcity of men. Women are trapped in a situation where "men" will not commit, and it's pushing dating norms heavily towards more promiscuity because a narrow set of men hold all the cards. 

Traditional enforced monogamy was a social technology that held this drifting-towards-polygyny tendency in check. Under liberal sexual norms, you get harems without the obligations, with women having to cover the costs of their SSRIs. 

When? 

The dynamics of leverage in these relationships also push the age of marriage up, as the primary, socially enforced form of relationship has moved from marriage to serial monogamy. 

At the same time, as the pursuit of careers became normative for both men and women and effective contraception leveled more than one playing field, the timelines of family formation began to shift. 

If you prioritize building a career in your youth (which is normative), then spend your peak fertility years in successive rounds of serial monogamy (which is normative) and then start to look around for a mate that's at the same level career-wise as you are around 30 with the idea that in a nebulous future you may eventually have children, you've reached a point of very little relationship leverage as a woman. A high level of education and income seems like a great asset in a future relationship, but by instinctively not "dating down," women's options get fewer and fewer. 

Biology

Another set of depressing statistical slopes relate to testosterone levels and sperm counts. Like many nightmare-inducing downward trends, this trend also started in the 1970s. Since then, there has been a steady decline of 1.4% in sperm counts yearly, with a total drop of 52.4% over around 40 years. The causes for this are still unclear, but some of the potential culprits include a highly-processed diet, exposure to environmental chemicals, lack of sleep, sedentarism, quitting smoking (yes, it is a potential factor), a permanent state of low-level stress, and overstimulation - or, most probably, a mix of all of the above. Young people are also having less sex overall, even though it's being piped in 24/7 through every medium. 

Material Factors

Many economists will brag about consumer purchasing power increases but providing for most family necessities like decent schools, insurance, and a home has become more expensive in the last 40 years, so much so that it has become unaffordable even for median wage earners. A good look at this data is through The Cost of Thriving Index, a measure devised by Oren Cass at American Compass. An economy specializing in giving consumers access to more sophisticated electronics and addictive scroll feeds is only one kind of value creation. Though it is dazzling, it's little comfort to people who need a decent job or a house to have a family.

Not being able to afford a house, store generational wealth in any way, and fearing that your children may be condemned to a life of downward mobility, are not negligible factors in people's decisions to not have a family. This can also push some to have a family much later in life, limiting the number of children they can have. 

Culture & Status 

The prominence of market relationships has restructured how we think about each other. Relationships, even with family, now aren't set in stone. They are much more similar to services rendered. What is the experience you're getting out of this relationship? What's in it for you? Does it "spark joy"? 

Families aren't useful in themselves, they are a net drag on the consumption options of the individual, both in material and "experiential" terms. They are also a drag on the environment, pump out CO2, overpopulate, suffocate turtles and melt icecaps. Adding to that, having children makes you verifiably unhappy, a new branch of science called "positive psychology" informs us. 

In a careful cost-benefit analysis, nobody should ever have children. 

The appeal of "building a legacy" is limited as well. Taking pride in your lineage, in your town, in your country are all virtues of the old world, vices in the new. You have the option to "build a legacy" at work by increasing conversions by 20% on that new landing page or making partner. 

A lot of Millenials are also traumatized veterans of divorce, from the first generation of people who realized marriages were about self-fulfillment and experiences and chose to have other experiences instead. Wanting a family seems like a mixed blessing at best if your experience of one involved mom's many boyfriends and every second weekend with dad and Jessica at the cabin.  

Most aspirational places that young people flock to, like urban centers, are not created for families or populated by them. Having children also often means self-exile from your peer and status group. It means isolation and limiting status-enhancing consumption. Having children will literally ruin your life if the life you've created is that of a single urban professional. 

The Main Problem

I believe the main culprit for our current situation is a much deeper mechanism than all of the emergent phenomena listed above.

The simple version is: human beings are driven to procreate by responding to stimuli that typically lead to having children. Divert those stimuli, no more kids.

We find fertile or high-status people attractive because they lead to the best outcomes for our offspring, offering either a directly genetic or indirectly social payoff. We like sexy things because they alert us to sexy situations which lead to sex and procreation. Our pattern recognition system is set up is to look for these cues and seek pleasure in these acts.

The problem we have now is that these signals have been divorced from their function. 

The pleasure we derive from sexiness or looking at attractive people will most likely either lead to a credit card charge or a wasted afternoon, not procreation. Even if satiating the first layer of pleasurable cues is not enough and we're still somehow set on having sex with a real person, this also will not lead to children because effective contraception is the norm. 

For most of our history, having children was not a choice. It was what we were compelled to do by dark chthonian forces beyond our understanding. We are not set up to choose to perpetuate our lineage because what we'll choose are supernormal, marketing-inflated proxies of the real thing. We can also get lost in chasing other supernormal stimuli that push other ancestral buttons, like video games or hyper-palatable food. 

The link between stimulus and the final response of procreation has been broken at every step. 

This is a damning historical development. I can see ways in which culture can circumvent the edge of the cliff we're navigating, but it will have to look very different from the liberal 'choose your own adventure' menu.


Thanks for reading my Substack.

Consider subscribing to it if you enjoy my writing. Also, please share, like, and comment.

Share