The Cultural Roots of Our Demographic Ennui

Published June 5, 2024

Public Discourse

At times, it may feel like we’re living in P. D. James’s The Children of Men, but the Right Honorable Baroness might have gotten one thing wrong. Her story of a global epidemic of infertility finds the world caught in paroxysms of terrorism, xenophobia, and violent authoritarianism. But the soundtrack of a world without a future may turn out to be less the explosion of a pipe bomb in downtown London than the cool hiss of a suicide pod.

The rest of this century will feature every major nation seeking to manage population decline—a recipe for aversion to wasting precious warm bodies on the field of battle. Revolution and violence have a certain appeal to the young and dispossessed, but an older society with money in the bank has more to lose. Aging comfortably, rather than exerting power, will be the order of the day. And the back half of the twenty-first century may resemble less a rage against the dying of the light than an emotionless flip of the switch.

Many of the familiar, worrying demographic trends—shrinking birth rates, declining marriage, disaffiliation from religion, rising numbers of the elderly with fewer hands to care for them—are a result not of economic dislocation, but of affluence. More of our material needs are met, and surpassed, by the power of global commerce and the undeniable consumer benefits of modern-day capitalism. But this prosperity means we have fewer needs to be filled by the Tocquevillian institutions of civil society, the solace of religion, or the meaning of parenthood. The result? Decadence.

This poses new challenges for the approaches and institutions of the Right, broadly speaking. For millennia, the task for many religious leaders and institutions was to provide succor to those eking out a living from the soil, keeping their eyes fixed on heaven and the promise of eternal rest after toiling in this vale of tears. Now, the biggest task in front of them is figuring out how to speak compellingly about values beyond what the market can appraise.

In the 1990s, a public broadcasting documentary popularized the idea of “affluenza”—that a growing trend toward overconsumption and consumerism was driving Americans toward the ephemeral. It’s hard to imagine any political figure in today’s landscape being willing to offer a similar critique of consumerism. But that doesn’t make it less true: increased affluence makes us both more comfortable and more risk-averse. With so many options before us, “settling” down into early marriage or seemingly staid community life can feel like a harsh tradeoff. With so much money to be made, or titles or degrees to earn, opting out of the labor force or veering off the career track asks more of us than when those opportunities were harder to come by. A society whose north star is consumerism has little to say in the face of suffering and is slow to encourage people to take on hard things.

This shouldn’t negate our appreciation of our rising level of baseline material comfort. I hesitate to suggest anyone would voluntarily trade a world with indoor plumbing and Spotify for the overcrowded housing and back-breaking agricultural work of just a century and a half ago. As society grows wealthier, it becomes easier to afford things and experiences that would have been unthinkable mere decades ago. Cities across the world are trying to curb tourism because intercontinental travel has become so democratized and affordable. The summit of Mount Everest now resembles little more than a high-elevation version of the wait to snap a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa. Every mid-sized American city has restaurants and brunch spots offering fare that would put yesteryear’s meatloaf and cube steak to shame. What would Louis XIV have given to be able to have sashimi delivered at the tap of a smartphone?

Rising wages and widespread prosperity mean we can afford more of all of this. But it also means the opportunity cost of time out of the domain of the market rises. Investing time in family life or community becomes relatively more expensive (in terms of both forgone wages and missed career opportunities); this, more than the out-of-pocket expenses associated with needing a bigger living space or diapers, explains the decline in fertility over the past half-century.

All this points to a one-way ratchet in cultural expectations, particularly around family life. Take weddings as an example: not so long ago, a reception in the church basement with a store-bought sheet cake was enough to celebrate a young couple starting life together. Now, guests at a Caribbean beach resort expect a blow-out bash even if the ceremony itself is just a formality for a couple who had already spent the better part of a decade living together. Or look at how “parenting” has become a verb of active cultivation rather than a natural state in life. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Tim Carney points out in his recent book, Family Unfriendly, the expectations for what “good parenting” looks like have risen as family sizes have fallen. Parents naturally want the “best” for their kids, making sure they get organic berries by age two, travel ball by age eight, private tutors by age ten. With all the investment this requires, it’s no wonder many parents are reluctant to have more than one (or any at all); academics call it the tradeoff between “quantity” and “quality” in parenting.  

As with any cultural shift, monocausal explanations will miss large chunks of what has driven this change. But we underrate at our peril the shift from a society where parenthood is assumed to be normative to one where it is deliberately planned. For the vast majority of American adults up until the sexual revolution, having and raising children was part and parcel of being an adult. The connection between contraception and the breakdown of marriage is well understood; as George Akerlof, Janet Yellen, and Michael Katz wrote in 1996, the rise of birth control weakened the responsibility of men to their unmarried partner’s pregnancy, increasing the incidence of both abortion and single motherhood.

But the pill and its descendants also had a long-term effect on social attitudes toward childbearing. Getting married and having children was, until (historically speaking) just a blink of an eye ago, the norm. Now, it requires intentionality. Young adults have greater purchasing power than ever before and a much higher share opt for postsecondary education than in generations prior. So it’s no surprise that people are postponing the transition to family life until later than ever before.

This has downstream consequences for society and politics. As National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty tweeted last August, with typical acerbic clarity, 

reliable birth control changes the social-spiritual ecology between the living, the unborn, and the dead, causing a critical mass of the living to underinvest in posterity, and to consequently resent, devalue and destroy the civilizational inheritance that they have refused to pass on, while the plunging fertility rate literally atomizes individuals by depriving them of larger kin groups.  

Transforming family life into one option among many others, rather than the default from which a select few opt out, means that the work of raising the next generation becomes a burden that is chosen rather than inherited. You shouldn’t get married, much less have a kid, until you’re “ready,” we’re told, with “ready” interpreted as expansively as is necessary. And people are listening; the average age at first birth has risen from 21.4 as recently as 1970 to 27.4 last year. In 1980, the median age at first marriage for women was 22; last year it stood at 28.4. Put it all together and married-couple households made up 47 percent of all households in 2022, down from 71 percent in 1970.

In the wake of the Great Recession, we might have chalked up some of this to the impact of economic hardship. But the economy has improved and marriage and fertility rates continue to fall. Delays and declines in fertility and parenthood cannot be explained by declining absolute living standards—even the lumpenproletariat in today’s US have a standard of living higher than most middle-class households a half-century ago. Rather, it’s increased expectations, professionally and personally, that are pushing Americans to opt for “quality” over “quantity.”

A world of creature comforts is not one that demands sacrifice. And with greater wealth comes less need for solidarity and interdependence. Who needs to invite neighbors over for a barn raising when you can just hire a general contractor? Of what use is the church’s traditional function of mutual aid in the era of commercial life insurance? A passport full of “experiences”—cliff diving in Bali, experimenting in Amsterdam—can help one “find oneself” without the messy interpersonal dynamics of belonging to a church or social club full of people who know your flaws. “Neighbors” are the people who happen to have bought houses near you; similar in net worth, perhaps, but without the presumption of any shared background or values.

The family, too, has been liberalized. Benefits that were once exclusive to married couples are now widely available. The social presumption that sex should ideally be reserved for marriage was weakened in the age of the automobile and obliviated by the birth control pill. The economic benefits and social status that were once linked to being a married member of society are now just as available to those who cohabit or remain single. And today, IVF and commercial surrogacy allow would-be parents (whether solo, two, or more) to procure a much-wanted child outside the bonds of a conjugal relationship.

In essence, we’ve unbundled the institutions that used to provide us with meaning, choosing to substitute spiritual or metaphysical belonging with economic growth. The result is greater optionality, but less stability; greater wealth, but less transcendence; higher individual consumption, but fewer people to share it with.

Can our contemporary affluenza be cured? Is there still a vocabulary that can encourage asceticism, delayed gratification, and sacrifice when there is a world of experiences to consume? Is there any surprise that our social understanding of human dignity feels so tenuous when our view of the good life feels increasingly shaped by our ability to experience material comforts? Is there any hope for staving off embryo selection based on eugenic characteristics, or the widespread adoption of “medical assistance in dying,” when the technological ability to avoid “needless” suffering is met by the increasing ability to afford it?

Those questions cannot be answered by a trendy “degrowth economics” that seeks to roll back living standards or a neo-Luddism that asks modernity to eschew technological advancement to return to the land. It may be, as the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis suggests in his “Conservative Futurist” manifesto, that the only way is through, and a flourishing of rapid productivity growth will restore a culture of dynamism. Or perhaps it’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than to expect a fantastically wealthy society to develop the habits of solidarity and mutuality.

Barring economic catastrophe, wages will continue to grow and the call of mammon will beckon. We can and should be grateful for the abundance we are blessed with while also awaiting—and working toward—another religious great awakening to enable us to bolster our thicker wallets with thicker social ties.

It is far from a given, but it is possible for us to resist the siren song of affluenza. The pathway out of unthinking decadence is intentionality: choosing to sacrifice today’s consumption for tomorrow’s posterity. To get us out of the self-consuming ouroboros of frantically chasing experiences rather than investing in home and relationships will require a greater attention to virtues of thrift, local commitment, and a lower bar for what “living comfortably” looks like. Choosing to do hard things—to start a family, have kids, invest in local institutions, and put others before ourselves—requires a formation in values that lie outside the market. 

It’s a hard sell. But if the alternative is civilizational quietus, it’s a sales pitch worth making. 

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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