More than 4 million American babies will celebrate their first Thanksgiving today. As we stroke their cherubic cheeks and fuss over their tiny features, we may imagine that their births matter only to the families they join. But in greying Western nations like ours, each new bundle of joy is also a sign of collective hope.
It was not always so. Three decades ago, population control alarmists were warning us to stop our reckless breeding lest we overpopulate the planet. Women pregnant with baby number three or four routinely endured scolding for squandering scarce resources on superfluous children.
Now demographers fret over a new problem: the birth dearth that is afflicting industrialized nations, leading to labor shortages, declining tax revenue, underfunded government safety nets, pension shortfalls and fewer active adults to care for the burgeoning ranks of the elderly.
Since 1972, the world’s fertility rate has decreased by roughly 50 percent, from 5 births per woman to 2.6 today. By 2050, the United Nations predicts, that rate will fall below 2.1, the number of births needed to replace ourselves. In some 60 countries, births already fall below that threshold.
America’s fertility rate of 2.09 births per woman falls just short of replacement level. Coupled with the impending retirement of 76 million baby boomers, it is cause for concern. Yet our fertility rate outpaces that of such as nations as Turkey, Australia, Canada and Japan. And it far surpasses the European Union’s average of 1.5 births per woman– an abysmal rate that has reduced officials in several European countries to offering couples cash payments for procreation.
The same trends that dampened birth rates abroad have affected America: increased use of contraception and abortion, later and fewer marriages, more educational and career opportunities that convince women to defer or pass on motherhood and mass migration to cities where children are a financial liability rather than a financial bonus. Immigration and teenage pregnancies contribute to higher birthrates here, but experts say those factors cannot fully explain America’s greater fecundity.
Some demographic analysts have been considering another explanation for our fruitfulness: our faith. Studies show a strong connection between religious practice and larger families. Religious Americans tend to have more children and express more approval of large families than their secular counterparts, and regions brimming with conservative churchgoers tend to boast more robust birth rates than those where more secular and liberal attitudes prevail. This link between faith and fertility helps explain the gap between birth rates between religion-saturated America and those in more secular Europe.
Not all Americans find this explanation comforting. In “The Empty Cradle”, author Phillip Longman warns of a “fundamentalist future” in which America’s pious progeny overruns the offspring of secular liberals. But faith-based fecundity also can benefit even an intentionally childless secularist who explicitly rejects the child-friendly and religious views that drive it, since he can reap the rewards provided by more taxpaying citizens without making the sacrifices required to raise them.
Of course, the most valuable contributions of America’s faith-based larger families are cultural and spiritual, not material. Their existence is a rebuke to the hyper-individualism and materialism that have convinced many Westerners that children are more trouble than they are worth. And the generosity of parents who welcome children, even when time and money are tight, is a poignant reminder that life’s greatest joys are found in self-sacrifice, not self-gratification.
As Americans gather today to celebrate faith and family, we should give thanks for the many new faces around our nation’s dinner tables and for the parents whose willingness to nurture the next generation is a gift to us all.