For the first time since 2014, and after decades of almost constant decline, the total fertility rate in the United States rose in 2021. But before you start popping bottles to celebrate, here’s what the birthrate looks like in graphic form, and no, that’s not a crude drawing of a ski jump.
In response to this, Elon Musk, who has seven children, most of whose names you can pronounce, tweeted, “Contrary to what many think, the richer someone is, the fewer kids they have. I am a rare exception. Most people I know have zero or one kid.”
While it’s great to see the eccentric billionaire highlight the value of children, his pronouncement doesn’t go too far enough. It’s not just that the ultra-wealthy or regular wealthy people aren’t having kids, it’s that no one is, hence the graphic. In short, the baby boomers gave birth to a baby bust.
The Biological Imperative Isn’t About Buying Stuff
Given all the battles over sex and abortion right now, it’s obvious that people greatly enjoy the activity that leads to children, as they should, but they tend to get a little neurotic about the natural result of that activity. We’ve covered the fact that having kids isn’t about economics before, but as that lesson didn’t stick, I guess we need to circle back to it again, Psaki-style.
Because what’s implied in Musk’s tweet is a longstanding argument for why people don’t have kids: the cost. If people have money, why aren’t they breeding? But as the famous quote that no one said goes, there are usually two reasons a person has for doing something: a perfectly good one and the real one.
Leaving aside that in this case we’re talking about something for which there isn’t really a perfectly good reason, plus that the topic is what people are not doing, Musk gets to the heart of the real reason. How can prosperous people in prosperous times be expected to self-actualize in a maximally fulfilling way if they’re stuck caring for offspring?
To put it another way, how can men and women become excellent workers, climb the corporate ladder, and contribute to the GDP if they’re taking time off for things like doctor’s appointments, school award ceremonies, sports, trips to the playground, trips to the emergency room, trips to the grocery store, and trips to theme parks, where they may or may not catch Covid?
We’ve All Become Wooderson, Just L-I-V-I-N’
Never mind that children are insanely expensive, which also contributes to the GDP, the problem is that the real goal here isn’t furthering society or swelling the GDP, but just living, l-i-v-i-n’. We’re caught in a doom loop, much like many old mainline churches, in which people aren’t so much afraid of what financial challenges the future might hold as they are solely invested in today.
By way of example, there was a story an Episcopal priest once told me about helping get a church in a retirement village going. When going over the finances, the vestry, that is the governing board, didn’t want to invest in a baptismal font, their reason being that they were in a retirement village and none of them were having any more children. When the priest pointed out that no baptismal font meant no grandchildren being christened in the parish, the money quickly became available.
As a nation, we’ve embraced the same initial mindset, and not solely because fewer people are going to church than ever. Post-WWII abundance led to a focus on the present, rather than the future. As more people focused on their own present, and that present’s concomitant luxury needs, they started having fewer children. They started seeing their legacies as being enshrined in spreadsheets rather than in the lives of their offspring.
And it’s not working out well for us.
When the real reason that people don’t have kids is because of the effect it will have on their present lives, and again, it totally will!, they lose sight of the truth that civilization functions best when we aspire to make things better not so that we might enjoy them, but so that future generations can.
Sure, true visionaries will invent and create because they are driven, but most of us aren’t true visionaries. We won’t have biographies written about the companies we founded or the time we launched a car into space just for the heck of it.
We May Be in the Playground, But We Can Still Look to the Stars
But if we think beyond our inability to be remembered for greatness, or accept that we might not even be broadly remembered at all, we can focus on positively affecting change, whether it be in nurturing local institutions, preserving natural spaces, updating the neighborhood playground, or maybe, just maybe, building a rocket, so that our true legacies will be able to enjoy them after we’re gone.
While it’s true that having kids isn’t a necessary precursor for any of that, children do more concretely connect us to the time when we will cease to traverse this earthly plane. They remind us that life continues after us. They change our focus from tomorrow to 50 years from tomorrow. That’s why, in a follow-up tweet, Musk added, “Population collapse is the biggest threat to civilization.”
Elon, the world’s wealthiest man, has done his part to stay connected to the future with his seven kids. I, the world’s richest man, have done mine with three. Now it’s time for everyone else to get with the program and start getting busy. We are flesh and blood, not economic atoms, and though our time is limited, our reach can be limitless, even if we never get around to building a rocket of our own.