Bags or Babies, Women Don't Have to Choose

Globe & Mail Comment, 14 October 2006

In the endless gloom-a-thon that passes for our public discourse, nothing bites harder than the fact that we are ceasing to exist. Google "low birth rate" and panicked reports from all over the world fill your screen.

Japan's drop is catastrophic; at 1.25 births per woman, Japan has the rate at which demographers believe a cataclysmic downward spiral is inevitable. Korea? Even worse at 1.08 births per woman. Russia? Dying. And don't even mention Europe. Demographers project that the European Union will lose between 24 million and 40 million people during each coming decade unless fertility is markedly raised -- at the upper end, that's close to the number lost to the Second World War every single decade. Nor will immigration help. It takes less than a generation for an immigrant family in Canada to accept local norms and stop reproducing. In fact, fertility declines are now being detected even in the poorer parts of Latin America and Asia.

In the June issue of Science, David Reher, a population historian at the University of Madrid, maintained that much of the world is now on the cusp of a prolonged period of population decline. Mr. Reher's heavy breathing is mirrored by Niall Ferguson, in the current Vanity Fair. Mr. Ferguson, normally a sensible historian, finds dropping birth rates to be evidence of the decline of Western Civilization, likening our situation to the last days of the Roman Empire. Mr. Reher couldn't agree more. "Urban areas in regions like Europe could well be filled with empty buildings and crumbling infrastructures as population and tax revenues decline," he prognosticates, adding that "it is not difficult to imagine enclaves of rich, fiercely guarded pockets of well-being surrounded by large areas which look more like what we might see in some science-fiction movies."

The culprit? To a man, Pope, historian, or demographer, they cite secular feminism, along with its demonic twins, birth control and abortion. Liberate women from children and kuchen, wave around a Kate Spade handbag, offer a good job at the local bistro or trading floor and we won't breed, not for anything.

Okay, does anyone else see how dumb all this is? Women don't stop having children because they want to buy expensive bags, get beat up by a boring dead-end job or are lost in ideological fervour. They stop having children because the divorce rate hovers around 50 per cent and they have an even chance of ending up as custodial parent, looking at bone-grinding labour and penny-pinching. Committed couples suffer from pretty much the same burden. The income of middle-class families has only risen 4 per cent in real terms since 1980. We know this is true, because even the bible of the right-wing, the National Review admits it, and lathers up a whole paragraph trying to explain why this is okay. Accept the right's eternal premise of punishing taxation and what is clear is that the middle-class family is squeezed mercilessly by the avarice of the demonic twins, government and business.

I had my daughter when I was a teenager and was so traumatized by the experience, I couldn't bring myself to have another. In my generation, half of those who graduated from university between 1969 and 1974 had no children at all. Having children is an act of the purest hope, and we had decided that autonomy was way safer, not to mention more fun. A whole generation took their lives off, to explore the furthest reaches of what women can accomplish. But look, last summer I spent a few days in my house with my mother, daughter and her three babies, and trust me, there isn't a party or adventure or job on earth that can compete with that, and I suspect, motivated by pleasure as we are, children will once again become necessary.

My own personal baby boomlet can be ascribed to two conditions: First, the enlightened (in this at least) CBC which allows my daughter to keep a job in which she thrives, through generous mat leaves and job sharing.

Low Alberta taxes and a booming economy in which her partner, an environmental economist, can look at a prosperous future make them a family whose exhaustion is shot through with both joy and hope. Calgary itself is suffering a baby boomlet for those precise reasons: corporations that desperately need good staff and will bend over backward to keep them, and a government that does not predate its citizenry. The policy implications are clear. Copy Calgary or die.

All over the world, governments are starting to throw money at breeding couples. Recently, the governor of a Russian province gave everyone an afternoon off a week, to "go home and make babies." It seems to be working. This summer, Australia crowed that through financial incentives, it managed to raise its birth rate from 1.72 children per woman to 1.85, most of the increases in women over 35, which is to say, women with careers and education.

Factor in more enlightenment from the corporate sector, men who stick around and do more housework, and you might just get us breeding again. In fact, things could (finally) be about to get really good for young women everywhere.

We who went before salute you.