Women, Men and Population Worries

By Alexander Sanger

The recent simultaneous release of the census data from the United States and China has led commentators around the world to ponder causes and effects of declining rates of childbirth in these and other countries. This is not a new phenomenon – birth rates have been declining in the West for 200 years, long before the pill. More recent declines have occurred in many countries in the East and West, North and South, for decades as women have become more educated and modern contraception has become more available. In many countries of varying incomes, fertility rates are stubbornly below the replacement rate, presaging declining populations.

Commentators have focused on the economic effects of reduced work forces, leading to reduced economic growth, innovation and standards of living, and on the budgetary effects of aging populations (in Japan diapers for adults outsell those for babies) leading to pressures on pension schemes. 

Discussions about what is causing this phenomenon have looked at the emancipation and education of women and the rising costs of childbearing and the never-yet-lessened demands childbearing and child raising place on parents. Parenting, or non-parenting rather, can be seen as a rational economic and lifestyle choice – an either-or between career and personal fulfillment and happiness on one side and the cost (financial and otherwise) of children on the other. Childcare and housing and outstanding student loans are cited as the major deterrents. Women especially still, despite decades of advancement, bear the brunt of this unpalatable choice – old gender patterns and expectations lead to women performing most childcare and housework and sacrificing more career opportunities. Add in the economic insecurity brought on by COVID 19, and the decision to parent becomes even more fraught. As a result, infertility issues are increasing, in women and men, as couples delay childbearing. Couples are having fewer children than they say they want.

Looking at the other side of the fertility coin, teen pregnancies and childbearing have fallen drastically in the US. Teen childbearing rates have fallen since 1991, when there were 61.8 births per 1000 teens. In 2020, the rate was 15.3. Cross that item off the culture war list. 

China had a long-term decline in adolescent childbearing (and marriage) in the late 20th Century but has seen a recent rebound in both in some rural provinces. The reasons for this rebound include the gender imbalance (more males in each age cohort than females due to the One-Child Policy), resulting in an imbalance in the marriage market and in males resorting to various strategies to land a bride as early as possible, including paying a bride price and finding younger brides. Rural girls are at greater risk for early marriage due to lower education levels, lack of opportunity and persistent traditional culture and gender norms.

Foregoing early childbearing leads to reduced overall childbearing – many women simply don’t catch up and have the number of children they want. The percent of women in the US age 30-34 who are childless rose from 26% in 2006 to 33% in 2018. Looking at US women age 40-44, in 1980, 90% were mothers; in 2006, 80% were mothers and in 2018, 86% were mothers. 

The New York Times on June 18, 2021 published a front-page story by Sabrina Tavernise and three others about women in the US delaying motherhood. Some of the above factors were discussed. Delaying childbearing was found more pronounced in areas with good economic prospects for women. Women there have more incentive to wait.

But the Times left out a few things. 

There was no mention of men. Are men delaying fatherhood like women are? Is taking two to tango a 20thCentury phenomenon not worthy of discussion in today’s climate? I remember an unmarried woman with no children in her 30s in a rural community saying to me a few years ago when I asked her about her romantic prospects, “there are no eligible men.” There were men in this community, it seemed as many men as women, but none measured up to her standards. She moved afield to find a mate. 

If we look at delayed motherhood, we must perforce look at the entire mating system including fatherhood – couples meeting, mating, sex, contraception, abortion, childbirth and child rearing. 

Are men and women in the US partnering or marrying at less rates? Yes. For all US men and women ages 18-34, in 2004, 33% had no steady romantic partner, whereas in 2016, it was 45%.

There are similar figures for adults under age 35 who are not living with a spouse or partner: in 2007 it was 56% and in 2017 it rose to 61%. In many instances, women are not, and cannot, rely on a male for support, hence they make their own career. In China, one report states that 15 million more adults lived alone in 2021 than in 2018. They are termed ‘empty nest youth’.

How about sexual activity? Quite a male/female difference. For men age 18-24 in 2000-2, 19% reported no sexual activity for the preceding year. In 2016-8, it rose to 31% of males. 

For women of the same ages in the same time periods, the rate rose from 15% to 19%. Quite a difference in reported sexual activity with far more males than females reporting none. 

Accurate figures in China are harder to come by. One survey in China found that during Covid, 53% of men and 30% of women had fewer sexual partners during Covid, and 40% of males and 32% of females reported less sexual activity. A similar gender gap as the US. 

What is going on with men and women and the mating system? 

Sex is down, pregnancies (intended and unintended) are down, abortions are down, and childbearing is down. Declining pregnancies can be attributed to less sex and better contraception.  Surveys indicate that couples are contracepting more and using better methods, including LARCS, Long-Acting Reversible Contraception. In China, contraception is harder to come by for adolescents but freely available to adults, including the long-acting methods. 

Are some sex differences at play here? The figure of men having less sex than women begs for an explanation. Are men fearful of approaching women, of dating, of initiating sex? Are women choosing more rigorously? Are more men not making the cut? Hence women having more sex with a smaller pool of eligible males?

Here we see individual choices ending up collectively driving governments batty. We have individual choices in two totally disparate countries, US and China, leading to the same end result. What is the commonality, if any? As women advance economically and are more educated, are males perceived to be (or are) in decline? Are women pickier? 

What are governments to make of this? Is it their business when and how many offspring its citizens have (or how much sex they have)? And what, if anything, can they do about it?

It is a valid function of governments to enable its citizens to have the offspring they want, i.e., to be able to reproduce, and to have those offspring survive and in turn reproduce. To be able to reproduce means maintaining the essential reproductive biology, i.e., fertility, including preventing environmental damage to reproductive organs for starters. Other damage to fertility comes from age, lifestyle, i.e., drinking and obesity, and STIs. Is infertility on the rise? Declining sperm counts have been in the news, though a recent report counters this. No matter the cause, shouldn’t governments be subsidizing fertility treatments for the married and unmarried if they want its citizens to have more children? China prohibits single women from using infertility services.

Then there are social, economic and cultural factors that relate to mating, sexual activity, pregnancy, abortion, childbearing, childrearing decisions. Each would take a separate volume to discuss and are of vital importance. These factors are what are now called intersectionality but have been reproductive factors since time immemorial and determine individual reproductive strategies, each of which takes place in a certain environment. In the days before modern medicine (and still in too many countries), childbirth was a major killer of women. The rates and risk were (and are) determined by such factors as race, geography, poverty, education, family unit, in addition to childbirth services and medical care. 

To the extent lower childbearing is a decision subject to outside influence, what are governments’ responses? Last month in China, the government adopted a three-child policy, now permitting married couples to have three. The likely effect? Near zero, just like the adoption of the two-child policy was five years ago. No mention of a right of unmarried women to have three children, not that many would, because non-marital childbearing is a rarity in China, unlike the US and much of the rest of the Western world – it is about 40% in the US and 42% in the EU and 55% in Scandinavia. It is well over 50% in much of Latin America. Many or most are in non-marital consensual unions/partnerships. The rate is under 1% in India. The only constant is that birthrates are declining in all these countries whether the parents are married or unmarried. So, put aside subsidizing marriage as a “solution” to the declining birthrate issue. 

Likewise subsidizing childbirth. Various EU countries have tried a variety of approaches including subsidizing childcare, tax credits, parental leave etc. and the effect is marginal, though not nil. Germany had an uptick after expanding access to affordable childcare and providing parental leave but not a major one. The uptick may be one of timing to take advantage of the benefits not an uptick in total number of children. China has a two-week paid parental leave for fathers though few take it. A government purchasing its future citizens is, generally speaking, money wasted.

How about free education? The expense of educating children is often cited as a deterrent (as well as unpaid student loans). About 24 countries around the world provide free (or nearly free) university education – many are in the EU, which has stubbornly declining birth rates. Others include Malaysia (at 2.0 births per woman and falling), Brazil (1.7 and falling) and Kenya (3.5 and falling). 

To solve the government’s fiscal issues, some are raising the age of retirement (easier for office workers than laborers) and increasing taxes on a reduced workforce (few or none dare reduce pension benefits). 

Then we get to the nub. What has all this to do with women’s and men’s individual choices about childbearing? And really, do, or should rather, governments have say?

Look what happens when governments intrude. In China, the One Child Policy led to a gender imbalance. Its policy against Muslim childbearing is akin to genocide. In Romania in the 1980s, the ban on birth control and abortion resulted in a generation of women rendered infertile by botched abortions. Government fines on the childless is the next frontier. If a government can prohibit childbearing, then can’t it require it? China and used to prohibit pre-marital sex, as did most US states. Can states require procreative sex? What is the difference in terms of asserted government powers? Is the Handmaid’s Tale coming?

In the US, states are adopting the Romania strategy and are falling over each other to prohibit abortion, — see Mississippi and Texas – itching to overturn Roe v. Wade. And then overturning Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized birth control. We see this push at the time the census shows a declining white population. We saw this in the mid-19th Century with white Protestants fighting back against immigrant Irish Catholics with the Know-Nothing Party to criminalize birth control and abortion so as to prevent the white Protestant women from using them. The Party also pushed to deny Irish the right to vote – the laws aiming to limit minority voting turnout and against immigration are nothing new. Tribal tensions and animosity are alive and well. 

What are women and men seeing when they think (consciously or subconsciously) about having children? In biology, there is the concept of reproductive strategy where each individual chooses, consciously or subconsciously, the timing and number of offspring to give them the best chance of survival and having offspring of their own. This includes choosing a mate. In many parts of the world, that means marriage. In much of the West, it doesn’t. The number of singles is on the rise in China. The sex ratio imbalance in China, that there are more men than women, is also a factor. Males have to compete more to attract a mate. Women can be choosier. What are they looking for: good genes, an equal partner, a provider, an equal helpmate in parenting – and … an apartment – the latest form of dowry. One commentator in China said, “housing prices are still the best sterilization tool.” Long work hours are a deterrent to men taking on more housework and childcare (the Times recently had an article on unmarried men in China choosing vasectomies). Long work hours for women and lack of affordable child care are also a deterrent to motherhood, as the Times also pointed out. The gender imbalance is alive and well—look at women being penalized more in COVID than men.  What in the US we call “intersectionality” is profoundly important to “solving” the problem – gender, discrimination, economic and social factors, all weigh in on individual lives and choices.

What we see are individual reproductive strategies at odds with national childbearing goals.