For years now, tech mogul Elon Musk has been warning the public that fertility rates have dropped precipitously. The titan of industry, a proponent of having more babies, seems to promote fertility as a worthy goal in itself. Previously, Musk said, “If people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble.”
And though he offers his children love, immense privilege, and quality time, his approach to progeny isn’t something that should be emulated. The crisis we face is not just falling birth rates, it’s collapsing families.
To bear a child is not particularly difficult compared to the immense responsibility of raising them to be healthy, happy, productive members of society. This is where Musk, with his ten children born to three different mothers (that we know of), is failing to model and promote the right message.
Lately, Musk has multiplied broken households as he multiplied offspring as if wealth and status can compensate for an intact family life, where mom and dad live under the same roof, love each other, and raise their children together.
Musk may be a genius, but he is fooling himself if he thinks we can resolve the fertility crisis simply by producing more babies.
The serial entrepreneur has fathered 10 children so far among three different women, most of whom were conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Musk had six children with his first wife, Justine Wilson, one of whom sadly died in infancy but is not married to either of the women who gave birth to three of his children late last year. Singer Clair Boucher (Grimes) produced a second child with Musk via a surrogate, while Shivon Zilis, Director of Operations at Musk’s company, Neuralink, gave birth to his twins just weeks before.
Through Grimes’ use of a surrogate, Musk further condoned decoupling a child in the womb from the genetic mother of the child and subsequently ripping that baby away from the mother who carried him or her for nine months.
As a businessman, though, Musk certainly has a grasp on the numbers. Fertility rates are down across the world. The U.S. fertility rate dropped to 1.77 children per woman in 2020, well below the 2.1 replacement rate necessary to keep the population from shrinking.
But people ought not to start making more babies as if there were a shortage of batteries for electric vehicles. We don’t want a world where children are spawned in artificial wombs and raised unlovingly, for example, even though this would ensure a steady supply of new humans. They are people, and how they are nurtured and by whom matters deeply.
There is no indication in Musk’s recent behavior, however, that he gives any thought at all to the importance of organic families: a biological mother and father raising their children together, from the womb into adulthood.
More children are growing up outside of the ideal, organic family structure, and while so many parents are doing the best they can in their less-than-ideal circumstances, children still bear the consequences. For instance, the number of married couples with children under 18 is down from 57 percent in 1970 to 37.6 percent in 2021, and the number of single mothers is nearly the highest it has ever been, at 15.49 million.
According to Kay Hymowitz, coauthor of a 2015 report on poverty and economic mobility, “In 1970, only 9 percent of women were single mothers at 35. Today, that number is 20.5 percent.”
The marriage rate has plummeted while the out-of-wedlock birth rate has risen. As of 2020, more than 40 percent of all babies in America are born out of wedlock. This figure rises to 70.4 percent for babies born to black mothers, up from 37.6 in 1970. For Caucasian mothers, the out-of-wedlock birth rate increased from 5.7 in 1970 to 28.4 percent in 2020.
All of this single parenting and out-of-wedlock childbearing have economic consequences for families. More than 37 percent of single-parent female-headed families were living in poverty, according to the study, while the same was true for only 6.8 percent of married families with children. Hymowitz observed that “in the U.S. at this time, marriage offers the best chance for children to thrive.”
Other studies have implicated fatherlessness and divorce in lower educational attainment and workforce participation, worse mental health, greater likelihood of substance abuse, and early childbearing.
Analysis from the Institute for Family Studies found that “young black adults in non-intact homes” were about twice as likely to have been incarcerated than those raised in “intact homes,” while white children in similar circumstances were 2.4 times more likely to be incarcerated. The odds of child poverty in non-intact families were more than 3.5 times higher for both racial groups.
The impact of non-intact families on behavior is significant, too. A 2006 study showed that “Children in all family types except the married-biological-parent family showed higher levels of behavioral problems.”
Stable, loving marriages of biological parents tend to create stable and nurturing environments for children. Such marriages are more hospitable for adoptive children as well. We need more children raised in this scenario, not just more children.
Like the fertility decline, family breakdown is a crisis happening in slow motion, but with immediate, profound, and lasting effects on the children born into it.
We’re not just in a fertility crisis, we’re in a family crisis: We’re having fewer babies, and the babies that are born are more likely to be negatively affected by broken families. If we increase the number of healthy marriages and have more babies born into those marriages instead of outside them, perhaps we can make having more children more desirable and realistic to families.
We can’t “manufacture” our way out of the fertility crisis, following Musk’s example, leading to even fewer healthy biological families. Instead, we must regain a lost sense of responsibility to the next generation and think about our future children and the life we want for them before making consequential personal decisions.
The last two and a half years of subjugating children’s needs to adult anxieties shows us just how far we have to go in creating a culture where children’s well-being is prioritized over adult desires.