Mums are having more babies than ever ... the nation's total fertility rate rose from 1.92 babies a woman in 2007 to 1.97 last year, the highest since 1977.
It's important to get the fertility rate back up to at least replacement level (2.1). To understand why, consider the following graph:
The graph shows the damage done by sub-replacement fertility rates in European countries. If these fertility rates don't improve there will be a drastic decline in the European populations of these countries as early as the year 2050.
The graph comes from an excellent article written by Richard Hoste. He explains the following ramifications of the low fertility rate:
It can be projected that the total number of white people lost from the EU, Canada, Switzerland, the Balkans, Norway and the ex-Soviet states including Russia will be around 279,000,000.
If you don't mind the idea of European people not being around any more, this information might not seem to be of such significance. But for traditionalists it does matter. Getting back up to a replacement fertility rate of 2.1 means a great deal.
Nor is it set in stone that fertility rates have to be so depressed. If you look at historical trends, Western fertility rates began to fall in the 1870s, hit a low point in the mid-1930s and then recovered to hit very healthy levels in the early 1960s. They fell again to reach a low point in the early years of this decade, before once again (in Australia at least) recovering ground.
Here is the fertility rate for Australia showing the mid-1930s low point and the recovery in the mid 1960s:
What happened to restore fertility levels? One academic, Jan van Bevel, thinks a traditionalist backlash against modernity might have been the cause:
The interwar period was an era of strong societal tensions, not just in politics and in the economy, but also in marriage and the family (Coontz 2005).
The tide of modernization had been producing ever more social changes at a pace that was bewildering many common people. Some were enthusiastically embracing the opportunities and freedom promised by modernity, within as well as outside the family. Others were alarmed by new patterns of behavior and saw modernity as threatening the proper, established order, bringing degeneration, decline, and decay instead.
Over time, the latter group formed a powerful, conservative, even reactionary counter-force against modernity. Maybe that was one of the factors responsible for the rise of "the golden age" (or golden cage) of the nuclear family in the 1950s and early '60s (Cheal 1991)
As much as I'd like to believe that a powerful group of conservatives put things right, I doubt that this is true. What's more likely is that first-wave feminism finally burnt out during the course of the 1930s, as the costs of the disruption to family formation became increasingly clear.
Still, Van Bevel has a point. Liberal modernity influences people to prioritise individual autonomy. The modernist mindset is to want to avoid serious commitments that might limit what we can choose to do for ourselves at any moment in time. This runs counter to a culture of family life. Liberal moderns are inclined to prioritise the single lifestyle of personal career aims, travel, casual relationships, consumer choice and recreational pursuits.
Helen Clarke, the former PM of New Zealand, put the liberal mindset as bluntly as it's ever been put, when she explained her decision to remain childless on the grounds that:
You've got better things to do with your life, unimpeded.
But there is a strong foundation for a traditionalist counter-movement. The instinct to marry well and have children runs deeply. Most people haven't given it up as a key life aim; just last week a major survey of Australians aged 18 to 45 found that a "loving relationship" was still the most valued aim in life:
The 1500 men and women ... rated a loving relationship above financial security, independence, career and a social life.
I expect too that many people do want to pass on their own culture and tradition to future generations. There are even liberals who regret not having contributed in this way. For instance, in my article The no future clause, I quoted the views of Gabriella, a 44-year-old childless English woman. She had been influenced by the liberal modernist mindset in her 20s:
Having children in my 20s would have spelled the end of everything I had spent my life working towards and was about to really enjoy: the ability to spend my money the way I wanted, travel where I wanted, choose my partners, live as I wished.
But in her 40s she was having other thoughts:
If people like me don’t reproduce, civilisation may be the worse for it ... I am a typical product of my family; I can see the thread stretching back through the generations. Do I think it’s a shame that this genetic inheritance won’t continue? Yes I do ...
It's the same with Nora. She is a childless Englishwoman who aims to continue, as a liberal modern,
to have fun, to enjoy my job, to meet interesting people, to go on great holidays, to read interesting books
But even she, as committed to the modernist mindset as she is, still feels the draw of other, more traditional, considerations:
I think my parents came from an excellent gene pool," she says, "and it’s a shame that, to date, that hasn’t been passed on ... at the end of our exchange Nora declares fervently, “You and I should have had children!” – hastily appending that she meant not for our own sakes, but in social terms. “We’re blessed with brains, education and good health.” She admits that the longer our discourse has continued, “the more I think I am a squanderer of my gifts and my heritage. But I live in a decadent age where that doesn’t seem such a problem. Anyway, devoting my whole life to promulgating my ethnicity is a big ask.
A traditionalist movement could provide a counterbalance to the dominant liberalism and encourage the commitments that many people, even liberals, do still consider seriously. Even if we weren't able to dominate, we could help to tip the balance. As the European fertility chart shows, even small changes have large consequences over time. It's worth making the effort.