The news media has been aflutter recently with stories (nightmare scenarios in some cases) of population decline in various countries, mostly Asian, with Europe an afterthought – the Italian  birthrate is at 1.3.  When I was younger, Asia was thought of in demographic terms as “teeming”. The worm has turned. China reported the first drop in population in over 60 years since the Not-So-Great Leap Forward (the drop probably occurred a few years ago but was unreported). South Korea and Japan have been losing population, and aging, for several years. Other developed countries around the world have less than a replacement birth rate (about 2.0).  Many have tried government incentives to increase it, without much lasting success.

All this has coincided with the improvement in the status of women in terms of education, jobs, and social status. The improvements for women yet to be achieved are well known, but no longer seem intractable. In Saudi Arabia, women can finally drive. Abortion is increasingly decriminalized (though not in the USA). Women are more independent than ever, making more money than ever, and as such, have more choice in mating than ever, don’t they?

Don’t they?

What of men and their choices? If economy and society are a zero-sum game (they aren’t), men must be relatively worse off than women if women are better off – one gender rises as one falls. Can’t both rise? Men still rule in corporations and government (the Nordics with their female political leadership didn’t get the memo on this). Aren’t both genders rising together in increased prosperity? Can’t we all just get along? One way to start a fierce argument is to try to explain the persistent gender imbalance in wages between men and women. 

A digression — I’m thinking about Russia, or what’s left of it. Who is getting slaughtered in Ukraine? Russian men, the ones who haven’t fled their country anyway. Smart guys. Run and survive to reproduce another day. Estimates say that 200,000 Russians have been killed or wounded so far and perhaps an additional 700,000 have fled the country. Out of about 7.5 million 20–29-year-old males.  Women and children left behind to cope. The Russia birthrate is now about 1.5. It is clearly going further south. I shudder to think how Putin will try to mandate childbearing to refill his army.

I wrote in Beyond Choice about reproductive strategies of women and men. Each gender collectively has one. Each individual has one. Find the right mate, choose strategically (not always consciously), have children that will survive, raise them, and have them in turn reproduce. Basic biology. This isn’t a haphazard process. It may not be conscious. Quality versus quantity in a mate? Short term relationship or long term? There is competition for mates. Who chooses? Who gets chosen? Are there rules to the game?

Women need and do control the mating process in free societies (arranged marriage is still the rule in many not-so free societies).  They have a greater investment in childbearing and need to chose strategically. And contracept strategically, which thanks to our work, they can in most societies. And abort strategically. Potential resources brought by a mate to the partnership may be key – men’s resources. Children are expensive. A mother’s time is expensive in terms of opportunity costs. Are men now less able to provide what is needed – be it time or money – in these expensive times? Do women care? With women’s increased education and earning capacity, need they still “marry up” as the social scientists call it? Can’t they carry on alone? Need they marry at all? Does it still take two to tango? 

Clearly not. 70% of births in Latin America are to single women. The OECD average is over 40%. In Japan, South Korea and China the rates are miniscule. These same countries now are experiencing a population drop. Social systems and culture have not evolved to a new economic reality. China is now permitting births to single women and IVF for them too. 

The New York Times had a recent article on men and fertility decline ( reporting on the work of Vegard Skirbekk. He found that women in the most gender-egalitarian countries still “tend to prefer men with relatively high income and education.” They do not prefer men with substance abuse issues or who are prone to violence. Men dropping out of the workforce in the Covid era is an issue in the US. In 1990, 72% of men were employed. In 2022, 65% were. Opioids and prescription med issues among men are more prevalent than among women. 

China has to deal with a severe gender imbalance given the years of son preference and the One Child Policy. Rarer women should have the pickings. But women don’t have the pickings in the job market and, seeing men as unreliable providers, want to keep their precarious jobs and forgo childbearing, or limit it or defer it at least. Incentives like baby bonuses and parental leave won’t solve this problem. 

Some reports quote women complaining that men don’t help with raising a child and keep working hard to provide. Then there are the men without work, or steady work. Or who are unreliable. It seems men can’t win here—do they work too hard or not hard enough? What do they think about all this? How about a restructuring of the economic system to make earning not an all-consuming task yet rewarding enough for a couple with children? That sounds Sovietistic and totally unworkable in most countries. The realities are that the high cost of education is real, the gig economy unstable. 

France recently went into an uproar when, given its low birthrate and increasing seniors, it wanted to increase the pension age to 64. Population and an economy have to be more than a Ponzi scheme to produce children to pay Social Security for their grandparents. A drop in the world population isn’t the end of the world. Didn’t it happen in Europe during the Black Death, which killed perhaps half the population.? Of course, people then thought it was the end of the world.

And what of women’s choices? Are they still constrained because of the status of men? Are women unwillingly forgoing children? If so, that is no better than being forced to have them. Are women’s aspirations victim to the new economic realities? Can’t and won’t new reproductive strategies evolve? Men and women have always reproduced in changing environments. The most adaptable survive. Isn’t that Darwin? Men and women will adapt. It may take a while, but they will. 

Governments and commentators will fret in the meantime – their economies will crash, seniors will starve, single people will live lonely lives. Governments will get into the business – they already are – of purchasing their own descendants through childbearing incentives. The results are meagre and the costs high. Less planning and government intervention and more individual innovation are what is needed. Though mandating a 4-day work week (and 7 hours max a day) might be a good start. And maybe with fewer people polluting and consuming we can save what is left of the environment.

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