Noah Millman has offered a thoughtful, clarifying reply to Ross Douthat’s column on declining fertility. Among a host of helpful qualifications and questions, Millman wonders if it really makes sense to speak of a “child-centered” family life:
Douthat talks about a cultural shift away from “child-centered” family life, but again I suspect he’s got causality backwards. How “child-centered” was family life in the 18th century, the period when children were apprenticed out as soon as they were old enough to physically manage the work? And yet, this was a period of phenomenal fertility in America – because arable land was extraordinarily cheap. Douthat tracks a change from 1990 to 2007 in people’s attitudes toward the importance of children for a successful marriage, but American fertility hasn’t declined precipitously since 1990; it has fluctuated around a relatively stable level since the mid-1970s. Instead, what’s happened is that the culture has, over time, adjusted to the way people are actually living. And they are living with smaller families, on average.
Millman has a point. The classical Protestant, bourgeois, American family that passed down to us maxims like “Children should be seen and not heard” would probably hesitate to call itself “child-centered.” Christ-centered, maybe (at least in more devout quarters). Devoted to the mother and respectful of the father, definitely. But child-centered, probably not.
It’s also true that fertility has fallen more or less steadily since the colonial period. The introduction of the pill, as much as it altered our public mores, didn’t do much to alter demographic trends. Between 1800 and 1900 fertility for whites is estimated to have dropped from 7 percent to about 3.5 percent. From 1900 to 2000—the era that saw the introduction of the pill, rock’n'roll, and all that—the birth rate dropped only another 1.5 percentage points, to slightly above 2 percent. So, not more or less over time, but rather less full stop.
Yet in focusing on the phrase “child-centered,” I think Millman is missing Ross’ more basic point. Declining fertility means not just fewer children, but much less rich and complex family structures in general. A culture in which one’s parents have one or no siblings is one very nearly without aunts and uncles. The University of Maine’s Robert Milardo has called these “the forgotten kin” arguing that “aunts and uncles complement the work of parents, sometimes act as second parents, and sometimes form entirely unique brands of intimacy.”
It will also be a culture in which children are likely to see less of their grandparents. Parents in high-fertility cultures have more reason to stay close to grandparents whose uncompensated (but nonetheless rewarding, yes?) work babysitting becomes much less necessary if there are only one or two well-timed grandchildren.
And this oversight is what makes possible Millman’s suggestion—perfectly reasonable given his views, but nonetheless stunning—that for a nation facing declining fertility “the most obvious solution is to export its elderly to retirement colonies in countries with a large and substantially under-employed youthful labor force, such as India.”
Millman is proposing, in the parlance of the Republican primary, self-deporting seniors. Now, this isn’t necessarily as radical as it first appears. After all, if grandma and grandpa have already moved from Poughkeepsie to Miami-Dade, would it make much difference if they went a couple hundred more miles to, say, a liberalized Cuba? Well, yes. As the Euro crisis has shown, whether logically or not, national borders define our circle of solidarity. To send one’s elders overseas makes plain and explicit a kind of neglect with which we may already have become too comfortable.
That we are even entertaining such proposals, let alone calling them “the most obvious solution” reveals a massive blindspot in the neoliberal view to which Millman ascribes. Meaning in life derives not just from wealth achieved by the efficient allocation of resources, or of retirees. It also comes from the network of relations with those older and younger that gives us a sense of continuity and community. This is not to say that with bigger families life is necessarily happier, but instead that it is richer, denser. What happiness we have will be more widely and immediately shared, as with our sorrow. One need not think this the highest or only value to be alarmed at how utterly absent it is from the neoliberal view.